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Narrative Theory

Teacher Education Quarterly

The Rise of the Life Narrative

What I think Cameron has noted is that if he re-crafts his life narrative “it shouldn’t matter what you’ve had in the past.” In other words he is worried that his life experience of sustained systematic privilege will interfere with the narrative he is trying to create for himself and his party where there is a “genuine care and compassion for those who fall behind” and where what “people really want (is) a practical down-to-earth alternative to Labour.” He ends, “Am I too posh? It shouldn’t really matter where you come from—even if it’s Eton.” While Eton then may have massive historical claims to cultural and symbolic capital, the narrative capital it provides is clearly a little more difficult to present and cash in. Cameron’s honest appraisal of the dilemma elegantly illustrates the seismic shift towards narrative politics and how this is likely to feed through into new educational modes for acquiring narrative capital (see Goodson, 2004).

The same importance of narrative capital can be seen working its way into the literature on business management and leadership. Peter Senge’s (2005) work on the discipline of business leaders points to the salience of what he calls the “principle story” in the motivation and direction of business leaders.

To forge the link between the multinational and the personal, we need to grasp each person’s life-theme. Senge says this about purpose stories:

The interviews that I conducted as background for this chapter led to what was, for me, a surprising discovery. Although the three leaders with whom I talked operate in completely different industries—a traditional service business, a traditional manufacturing business, and a high-tech manufacturing business—and although the specifics of their views differed substantially, they each appeared to draw their own inspiration from the same source. Each perceived a deep story and a sense of purpose that lay behind his vision, what we have come to call the purpose story— a larger pattern of becoming that gives meaning to his personal aspirations and his hopes for their organization. For O’Brien the story has to do with “the ascent of man.” For Simon, it has to do with “living in a more creative orientation.” For Ray Stat, it has to do “with integrating thinking and doing.”
This realization came late one evening, after a very long day with the tape and transcript of one of the interviews. I began to see that these leaders were doing something different from just “story telling,” in the sense of using stories to teach lessons or transmit bits of wisdom. They were relating the story—the overarching explanation of why they do what they do, how their organizations need to evolve, and how this evolution is part of something larger. As I reflected back on gifted leaders whom I have known, I realized that this “larger story” was common to them all, and conversely that many otherwise competent manages in leadership positions were not leaders of the same ilk precisely because they saw no larger story.
The leader’s purpose story is both personal and universal. It defines her or his life’s work. It ennobles his efforts, yet leaves an abiding humility that keeps him from taking his own successes and failures too seriously. It brings a unique depth to meaning to his vision, a larger landscape upon which his personal dreams and goals stand out as landmarks on a longer journey. But what is important, this story is central to his ability to lead. It places his organization’s purpose, its reason for being within a context of “where we’ve come from and where we’re headed,” where the “we” goes beyond the organization itself to humankind more broadly. In this sense, they naturally see their organization as a vehicle for bringing learning and change into society. This is the power of the purpose story—it provides a single integrating set of ideas that give meaning to all aspects of a leader’s work. (p. 346)
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  • Date of publication: 08/08/2012
  • Publisher: Teacher Education Quarterly
  • Subject:
    Narrative Theory
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