Five Ways Local Government Executives Use Stories to Lead

Research shows the importance of stories in leading staff members and residents.

ARTICLE | Jul 2, 2019
By Ellen Foreman
Storytelling written on planner with pencil

Five key themes have been identified as ways in which stories are used by city, county, and town managers and senior staff to provide leadership and influence others in contemporary local government, an international study has found.

At a time when respect for traditional institutions and professional authority is in decline, public service leaders have been found to adapt their leadership techniques to take into account a radically changing world.

This shift is brought to life in ‘Storytellers in Chief: How Top Local Government Managers Use Storytelling to Lead,’ an empirical study that has taken place over the course of a decade. It was jointly commissioned by ICMA and its affiliates, Solace and CAMA, which together represent chief executives, city managers, chief administrative officers, and other senior managers across the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, and beyond.

The major themes that emerged from interviews with more than 120 chief executives, city managers, and other senior officers across the UK, USA, and Canada are that they use storytelling to:

  1. Create an emotional connection
  2. Make sense of what’s going on
  3. Challenge practices and assumptions
  4. Manage in a political environment
  5. Develop and learn.

The research highlights ways in which storytelling – and the broader idea of narrative - represents a significant part of everyday leadership practices.

In the study, stories emerge as a powerful and purposeful medium. Leaders use these as a means for working with and through others, as well as encouraging collaboration, developing the next generation, passing on knowledge, and forging a common identity. Storytelling is a way of achieving influence and of moving, motivating, and persuading others to take action in pursuit of the public good.

“Storytelling is an essential way for public managers to leverage the fundamental humanity of government for community ends. Group identity, from family to neighborhood to nation, can often be defined by mutually treasured stories,” said Marc Ott, ICMA Executive Director, who contributed a forward to the report. “We are especially grateful to our affiliates Solace and CAMA for producing what is sure to be an essential tool for local government managers as we continue to set the example of civility and efficacy in these divisive times.” 

Graeme McDonald, managing director of Solace, said: “Our working lives can often be dominated by rational, evidence-based decision-making. While that is still incredibly important, facts alone aren’t sufficient. We shouldn’t ignore the need to also emotionally engage with residents, businesses, and other organizations. By inspiring our communities through positive stories, we can help create collective buy-in to a different future and encourage everyone to strive toward shared goals.”

Download ‘Storytellers in Chief: How Top Local Government Managers Use Storytelling to Lead’ today to learn more!

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