PKAL Volume IV: What Works, What Matters, What Lasts

Story-telling and leadership in the work of reform

September 25, 2007

    Any leader who wishes to be effective must acknowledge, and attempt to deal realistically with, the enduring features of leadership: [that a] leader is likely to achieve success only if she can construct and convincingly communicate a clear and persuasive story; appreciate the nature of the audience(s), including its changeable features; invest her own (or channel others) energy in the building and maintenance of an organization; embody in her own life the principal contours of the story; either provide direct leadership or find a way to achieve influence through indirect means; and, finally, find a way to understand and make us aware of, without being overwhelmed by, increasingly technical expertise.

    -Howard Gardner, Leading Minds: An Anatomy of Leadership. HarperCollins, 1995.

In his book Leading Minds, Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner explores the work of a select group of twentieth-century leaders. Among the “constants” of leadership he finds in their individual lives is that of “the central story or message.” Since 1989, the PKAL approach has been to encourage the building of communities through which central stories and messages about the many facets of institutional transformation are shared. In our earliest position paper in 1989, we cited words of Robert Hutchins (unknown source) that were the catalyst for how we have approached such work of building communities:

    A community must have a common aim, and the common aim of the education community is the truth. It is not necessary that the members of the community agree with one another. It is necessary that they communicate with one another, for the basis of community is communication. In order to communicate with one another, the members of the community must understand one another, and this means that they must have a common language, a common stock of ideas.

The value of sharing stories (interviews and presentations) at this stage of reform of STEM education is the awareness that there is an increasing common stock of ideas. Consistent visions of what works are found in departmental mission statements, institutional materials directed toward perspective students and/or donors, and documents outlining the strategic planning process for new spaces for science. Whether or not everyone is in complete agreement about what works, there is an increasing persistence of informed discussions on campuses across the country and within stakeholder communities, about issues that matter in regard to the education of current and future undergraduates in this country.

More important to note, however, is the increasing number of stories that can be told about what happens when a community begins to take seriously the messages about the why and how of reform. Many of these have been presented and will continue to be presented in a variety of PKAL venues, evidence of the social nature of the scientific community, that the doing of science is inherently a social activity, carried about by people whose shared values create a common culture.

    Science is about a great many things.... It’s about the systematic accumulation of facts and figures. It’s about the construction of logically consistent theories to account for those facts. It’s about the discovery of new materials, new pharmaceuticals, and new technologies..... But, at heart, science is about the telling of stories— stories that explain what the world is like, and how the world came to be as it is. And like older explanations, such as creation myths, epic legends, and fairy tales, the stories that science tells help us understand something about who we are as human beings, and how we relate to the earth.

    -M. Mitchell Waldrop, Complexity: The Emerging Science at the Edge of Order and Chaos. Simon & Schuster, 1992.

The story-telling in PKAL started in 1990 with a three-day brainstorming session at Hope College, with twenty-six faculty, deans and presidents wrestling with how to define and describe what works. All of us told our own stories about what worked, for us personally and for our students. This was an important first step for PKAL, not only because we learned about the potential of story-telling, but that the end result was a message that was timely and powerful. We will continue to tell stories about colleges and universities that are coming to understand what it takes to identify, create, develop and sustain what works, given their particular context and circumstances, identity and mission, in ways that serve the larger interests of society. We will continue to tell stories about the people we meet along the way.