Harnessing the power of narrative in city leadership

Aug. 31, 2018 – When Tulsa, Oklahoma, Mayor G.T. Bynum delivered his State of the City address in November 2017, it was full of statistical analysis, key data points, and listed goals.

“It was an audit,” Bynum later realized–informative, but not particularly compelling.

This year, he wants members of the Tulsa community to experience something different: a State of the City narrative, bringing together his personal story, the community’s collective story, and a call to action.

Bynum and 39 other mayors spent a full day in July learning about how–and why–to structure this type of narrative from Harvard Kennedy School professor Marshall Ganz and his team. Ganz has decades of experience in community organizing, and one focus of his work at the Harvard Kennedy School is what he calls ‘public narrative’–a way of harnessing the power of narrative to do the work of leadership, enabling others to achieve shared purpose in the face of uncertainty.

In July 2018, 40 mayors began their year of Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative programming with a three-day convening in New York City. The first day of the convening was devoted to Ganz’s public narrative, which gave mayors like Bynum a chance to reflect on how they frame city challenges, issues, and goals when addressing others.

The public narrative framework includes three pieces, Ganz explained to the mayors: what he calls the ‘story of self,’ the ‘story of us,’ and the ‘story of now.’

Using videos from his past workshops and even clips of stirring speeches from movies, Ganz broke down the three pieces of the framework for mayors and explained the need for each one.

Telling a ‘story of self’ can begin building a relationship with one’s listeners (or constituency) by illustrating why you’ve been called to leadership, This requires sharing specific moments of personal experience, as Joyce Craig, the mayor of Manchester, New Hampshire, realized during class.

Ganz asked Craig to try out a ‘story of self’ at the beginning of the workshop, and as she spoke, he kept pushing her to get more specific, asking her to share specific moments in which she learned to care. The more specific the details, the more emotionally present she can be, he explained, and this enables others to “get” the meaning a moment actually had for her.

“It makes you realize how important those details are,” Craig said.

She planned to think more about her ‘story of self’ upon returning to Manchester, Craig said, because she believes telling it to constituents will help her connect with them.

“Sharing your personal story, what motivates you and what challenges you’ve encountered and overcome, that shows you’re just like anyone else in the community,” she said.

The ‘story of us,’ Ganz continued in the second part of the workshop, evokes specific moments of shared experience among the listeners that bring shared values to life. These are moments in which the group of people experienced a challenge, had to deal with it, and learned from it. They are moments of both challenge and hope, with the potential to result in a collective choice to work together because of what is shared.

Ganz asked several of the mayors to practice developing a ‘story of us’ to unite the group in the room. They each tried to speak about a shared experience, whether a shared excitement from earlier that day, or the shared experience of deciding to run for mayor.

To hear other mayors speak about their group as a whole was “really powerful,” said Michael Tubbs, the mayor of Stockton, California. He said it illustrated the unique ability they have as a group because each mayor can affect change in their own community, so connecting with other mayors magnifies that power to affect change.

For Bynum, the demonstrations of ‘story of us’ created a feeling of humility and of community. They highlighted the similarities between the mayors, making him feel that they speak a shared language and understand one another’s struggles.

“I realized I’m not unique in what led me to being mayor,” Bynum said, “but I’m also not alone.”

Both Tubbs and Bynum said they’ve used the ‘story of us’ before, though they may not have called it that. They remembered speeches given to constituents, staff, or community groups, where they mentioned issues in the group’s collective memory or collective awareness, and told the audience of their value, as a group, as the best people to address these issues.

“It was not as formalized as this when I spoke about the ‘story of us’ previously,” Tubbs said. “Now, I appreciate the structure and how to do it very intentionally.”

Ganz noted that all three pieces of the public narrative framework are designed to “bring craft, intention, and purpose.”

“We’re taking what you know implicitly, and making it explicit,” he said.

Ganz explained that the ‘story of self’ and ‘story of us’ center on moments in the past–moments of individual or collective challenge that required choices, and had outcomes that helped them learn. The ‘story of now’ centers on the present moment, Ganz said: “a moment, in which we’re confronted with an urgent challenge to which we must find the hope and the courage to respond.”

Telling a ‘story of now’ that resonates means looking at a current challenge and “bringing out the emotional force of the challenge, not muting it,” he said. “Then, finding sources of hope in shared values, and turning the challenge into a choice, and offering a strategic pathway to action.”

Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney said he has certainly used the ‘story of now’ as a politician running for office, but hasn’t used it much since taking office in January 2017. A very straightforward “pathway to action” is asking people to vote, but mayors in office working on specific issues aren’t always able to articulate pathways to action as easily.

“We need to use this framework while governing, not just while running,” Stoney said.

He said he plans to use all three pieces of the framework upon returning to Richmond.

“I’m focused on shepherding some big projects this year,” Stoney said, “so I can use public narrative to help ‘humanize’ what needs to be done, for who, and why. Everybody will want to know, ‘What’s in it for me?’ when it comes to investments in the city. This will give us a way to answer that.”

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