Tempest in Three Teacups: Magical Storytelling

Storytelling is big. Our world seems alive right now with  some of our best experts extolling the power of storytelling. Business schools have switched from ‘pitches’ to stories, Dan and Chip Heath’s compelling Made to Stick is required reading for NGO leaders, and politicians keep mining the power of Reagan-stories for inspiration. But let’s be clear, stories are complicated.

The reason most of us aren’t regularly regaling people with perfectly timed and eloquently described stories of our lives is because life rarely unfolds that way. It is only upon reflection that we recognize that x led to y, or that ‘this’ was the beginning and ‘that’ was the end. Yet leadership these days seems to demand that we pluck from the whorl of our past a sequence of logical facts that magically blend together into poignant lessons and an inspiring can-do tale.

But as researcher Elizabeth Loftus describes in her book Memory: Surprising New Insights into How We Remember and Why We Forget,

Memory is imperfect…The memory traces can actually undergo distortion. With the passage of time, with proper motivation, with the introduction of special kinds of interfering facts, the memory traces seem sometimes to change or become transformed. These distortions can be quite frightening, for they can cause us to have memories of things that never happened. Even in the most intelligent among us is memory thus malleable.

One particularly powerful influence in truth-bending is the desirability of outcome. People are prone to report what they believe the researchers wants to hear or report data that puts them (the subject) in a more positive light. What is critical to note is that over time, people actually believe the ‘adjusted’ facts to be true.

Greg Mortenson‘s unravelling is a cautionary tale for all leaders, especially those of us in the social sector where the self-revelatory, enlightening, ever-progressing origin story has almost become a requirement of the job. Where the desirability of outcome may tend towards exaggerated heroism.

Seems to me, this individualistic storytelling ‘heroism’ is partly the undercurrent of what distinguishes social entrepreneurs from mere executive directors? True stories are powerful and inspiring. But so are great managers.

The most discouraging thing about Mortenson was that he was too focused on being a celebrated founder and not at all focused on being a good manager. He didn’t understand that the inspiration story needs to be followed by the education story: testing one’s theories against data, research and outside expertise. He didn’t understand that the education story has to be followed by the institution story: building an organization capable of acting on the dreams he inspired. And mostly he did not understand that the job of an NGO leader is to surround yourself with staff, board, donors who can build upon AND save you from your own mythology.


  1. Anna

    I agree that the “individualistic storytelling ‘heroism'” is at the heart of this problem. We hear it all the time – “tell stories!” – but this leads to an overemphasis on the dramatic at the expense of the real. And most development “stories” are not simple, but complex, multi-faceted and resistant to being shrunk to a sound bite.

  2. Pingback: Collecting “Three Cups of Tea” posts | Good Intentions Are Not Enough
  3. Gwyneth Tripp

    I too often swoon for aspirational tales rather than ones about the nuts and bolts and hard work to get there. They require more of us to hear them. I wonder if in keeping the stories grandiose we remove ourselves as active players, assuming instead that someone more eloquent is more capable and that our complex problems can be addressed with some magical method – or to borrow a concept from an earlier piece of yours, magic beans.

    Here’s another good piece about the illusion with mention of some doing the real work, and better: http://www.ssireview.org/opinion/entry/its_not_about_the_tea/

    • crystalhayling

      G, excellent point. It does feel wonderful to imagine that some grander soul is handling it. I like this piece from SSIReview because he names the unease that many in the field felt for Mortenson’s work for quite some time. As he says, “..he no longer needs to grit his teeth when people start raving about Three Cups of Tea.” And I would agree the fault lies with the donors, though I’d have to put the board up there too. Ans ask, could any of us done more than just grit our teeth when asked?

      • Gwyneth Tripp

        I’ve been thinking (on other matters) that I just want to trust that others want to do right by themselves, and others. I just came upon a quote from John F. Kennedy – “The great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie, deliberate, contrived and dishonest, but the myth, persistent, persuasive and unrealistic.” A good reminder of how the things we hope for can hide what’s actually happening.

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