I was just eight years old when I learnt how powerful story is - in shaping who we are and who we can be. At the time a classmate observed that she was very pretty and that I definitely was not. Now it was true that I was an unusual-looking child - eyes the colour of honey, lips too full for my child's face - but I had read The Ugly Duckling and I knew that somehow this story was my story. And so when the arrow labelling that little girl 'ugly' came hurtling towards her, story had equipped her to catch the arrow and let it fall harmlessly to the floor. 'Yes, I know' my little girl said, 'and one day I will be beautiful.'
Through the years my ear has become tuned to the underlying narratives we live by - many of which are opposing or mutually exclusive. These narratives shape the activities we do, and the beliefs, thoughts and feelings we hold about our present circumstances and of the future we anticipate. They influence the degree of anxiety or optimism we have, our sense of power or powerlessness, and the isolation or connection we experience day to day. Perhaps most importantly they limit and define the choices we see as available to us. They lead to limiting beliefs like 'that's just the way it is', or 'that's all very well, but in the real world...'.
An 18 year-old friend once moved into the cabin in our back garden. What a great first home I thought -- your own place with communal gardens and people who care about you close by. After two weeks I asked Alexander how he was getting on and was surprised by his reply."Oh Kanada, it's awful -- I don't want to be an adult!" 'Why ever not?' I asked. Here was a young man with everything going for him -- gifted, intelligent, connected... "I don't want to be busy all the time and go into debt!"
Sadly this is what he understood being an adult in our society means, and who can blame him for drawing such a conclusion? One of the dominant narratives of our day, 'The Time of Austerity,' is one of wage slavery, consumption and debt. Not a very compelling proposition for people on the brink of adulthood.
However our time is also a very fluid time, and this fluidity creates an opening for us to consider the inherited stories we find ourselves in and consciously co-create a narrative that would enable us to feel proud to be an adult human alive today. At its essence this is a question of leadership. It is not enough to understand the stories that have shaped us. We must also understand that if the narratives we have inherited don't serve us then it is not we who must change but our relation to the narratives. Yes it is true that we are born into a story, AND we are writing the story as we go.
The question is not whether we are leaders but what we are leading ourselves and others towards? Leadership is intimately bound up with narrative, and the work of developing leaders, if it is to be relevant, must concern itself with the wider context of the narratives we find ourselves in and those we are creating with every choice we make.
Through our choices we either shore up an existing narrative or contribute to the creation of a different story. We have the power to craft a story that serves the whole, and this represents one of the most profound opportunities of our times. Which is why the two most important leadership capacities needed today, in my view, are 'imagination' and 'choice'. Imagination to envision a just and sustainable future. Choice to make it so. Each of us, in any way we can, in all fields of endeavour, in every sphere of influence we can leverage. Cumulative action to write a new story.
Kanada Gorla will be speaking at Natural Leaders NOW at Friends House, Euston, London on Saturday 22rd and Sunday 23rd November.
Tickets are available here: http://naturalleaders-now.com/