In this essay, I argue that public narrative is a leadership art through which we translate values into action: engaging heart, head, and hands. As narrative it is built from the experience of challenge, choice and outcome. As public narrative it is woven from three elements: a story of self, a story of us, and a story of now. Or, as Rabbi Hillel, the 1st Century Jerusalem sage put it, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am for myself alone, what am I?  If not now, when?”


Two Ways of Knowing:

Why and How

             We interpret the world in two ways – as narrative and as analysis. We develop our understanding who we are, where we are going, and why as narrative. Narrative articulates how we feel about things (affect) better than what we think about them (cognition). The “truth” of a story is in how it moves us. Psychologist Jerome Bruner argues that narrative engages us because it teaches us how to cope with uncertainty, especially with respect to others. In symbols, rituals, and celebrations, we enact shared stories. An ancient form of interpretation, this way of knowing helps us answer the question of WHY we should act – our motivation.

Analysis applies rules of critical reason and evidence to understanding data in the world. Analysis articulates what we think about things (cognition) better than how we feel about them (affect). The “truth” of analysis rests on the extent to which the data confirms or falsifies its hypotheses, as does our acceptance of the authority of those who invoke this logic. Analysis is most persuasive when it helps us achieve the outcomes we want. In organizations, we often do analytic work through deliberation, the job of many meetings. This way of knowing helps us answer the question of HOW to act – our strategy.


Knowing Why:

Emotion, Motivation, and Action

To understand motivation – that which inspires action – consider the word emotion and their shared root word, motor -- to move. Just as we map the world conceptually by noticing patterns, contrasts, and commonalities, we map the world affectively, by distinguishing bad from good from irrelevant. Information about bad and good is communicated through our emotional experience of the value that events, people and things hold for us. We use this information affectively to map the world, including our behavior. Psychologists argue that the information provided by our emotions is partly physiological, as when our respiration changes or our body temperature alters; partly cognitive since we can describe what we feel as fear, love, desire, or joy, and partly behavioral, as when we are moved to advance or to flee, to stand up or to sit down.

We also experience our values through our emotions. Our emotions provide us with vital information about how to live our lives, not in opposition to what we learn through reasoned deliberation, but more as a precondition for it.[1]          

Political scientist George Marcus writes of two key neurophysiologic systems that govern our emotional responses – disposition and surveillance.[2] Our dispositional system operates along a continuum from depression to enthusiasm, influencing how hopeful we are. Our surveillance system compares what we expect to see with what we do see, tracking anomalies which, when observed, translate into anxiety. Without this emotional cue, Marcus argues, we simply operate out of habit. When we do feel anxiety, it is a way of saying to ourselves, “Hey! Pay attention! There’s a bear in the doorway!”

The big question is what we do with that anxiety. This is where the dispositional system – and its continuum from hope to despair – comes in. How will you react if you are in a despairing mode when you experience the anxiety of anomaly? Fear, withdrawal, defensiveness – not very adaptive behaviors. How will you react if you experience anxiety when you are hopeful? Curiosity, a desire to explore, an opportunity to learn – very adaptive behaviors. Marcus argues that sound and creative reasoning requires both anxiety – as a stimulus to reasoning as opposed to acting out of habit – and hopefulness.

Moral philosopher Martha Nussbaum argues that, because we experience values through our emotions, making moral choices in the absence of emotional information is futile.[3] She is supported by data about the experience of people afflicted with lesions on the amygdale, that part of the brain central to our emotions. When faced with decisions, people with this disability come up with one option after another, but they can never decide because decisions ultimately are based on values. If we cannot experience emotion, we cannot experience the values that orient us to our world. So our readiness to deliberate, our capacity to deliberate successfully, and our ability to act on our decisions rest on how we feel. As St. Augustine observed, “knowing the good” is not the same thing as “loving the good” and being moved to act on it.[4]

How we feel about something influences what we think and what we do. However, the way we feel about some things often has little to do with the present, but rather is a legacy of the emotional lessons we learned long ago. Suppose that, as a four-year-old, you are playing on a swing-set at the park when a bigger kid tries to kick you off.  You run to your parent for help, but your parent laughs it off. In that moment you are angry and embarrassed, convinced that your parent doesn’t care. You now have learned the lesson that counting on others is a bad idea. As an adult, evaluating what to do about a pay cut, your past experience will make it unlikely that you will join other workers to protest. You fear counting on others; you may even tell yourself you deserved that pay cut.  If you are still in the grips of that fear when an organizer comes along and tells you that, with a union, you could keep the employer from cutting your pay, you will see that organizer as a threat, her claims suspect and her proposals hopeless.  So the exercise of leadership often requires engaging people in an emotional dialogue, drawing on one set of emotions (or values) which are grounded in one set of experiences, in order to counter another set of emotions (or values), grounded in different experiences – a dialogue of the heart. This dialogue of the heart, far from being irrational, can restore choices that have been abandoned in despair.


Mobilizing Action

Which emotions inhibit action? Which emotions facilitate action?  Inertia causes us to ignore signs of the need for action. Fear can paralyze, driving us to rationalize inaction. Amplified by self-doubt and isolation, we may become victims of despair.

On the other hand, urgency gets our attention, hope inspires us and, in concert with confidence and solidarity, can move us to act. 

As the chart below shows, leaders can engage people by mobilizing feelings that encourage action and challenging feelings that inhibit action. In fact, most of us hold conflicting feelings, some of which are more salient at one time than at another. Mo­bilizing one set of feelings to challenge another can produce an emotional dissonance, a tension that can only be resolved through action. This is sometimes called agitation. For example, the value that people place on not upsetting the boss (teacher, parent, employer) because of their dependency on that boss may conflict with the value they place on self-respect when the boss does something that violates their sense of self-respect. One person may become angry enough to challenge her boss; another may decide to “swallow her pride,” or will resist the organizer who points out the conflict. Any resolution can be costly, but one may serve an individual’s interests better than another. One of the ways leaders resolve this tension is with action embedded in the telling of a new story -- a story of hope.


Values to Action



                                             INERTIA                                                                                                    URGENCY






                                                    APATHY                                                                                                            ANGER                     







                                                    FEAR                                                                                                                  HOPE






                                                                                                                                                        YOU CAN MAKE A

                                           SELF-DOUBT                                                                                            DIFFERENCE






            ISOLATION                                                                SOLIDARITY                  





Action Inhibiters:
Inertia, Fear, Apathy, Self-doubt, and Isolation

             The biggest “belief barrier” to action is inertia – operating by habit and not paying attention. We process most of the information that comes our way on “autopilot,” and we respond as programmed. For much of what we do, this is efficient. But if something new is going on -- something that might pose a threat or hold out promise – and we stay on “autopilot,” we may not only miss an opportunity, we may wind up in real trouble.

             Fear can paralyze us. Threats, danger, standing out, failing, losing face or being scorned – when we are afraid, we rationalize our inaction. We pay little attention to the new leaflet about all the benefits a union can bring, for example. We come up with imaginative excuses to justify our avoidance, to confront our fear. 

             What about apathy – not caring?  Although literally defined as “without feeling,” more often apathy describes the feeling that we can do very little about our situation. Coupled with self-doubt, apathy becomes its first cousin – cynicism.

             One of the biggest belief barriers is self-doubt - I can’t do it. People like me can’t do it. We aren’t qualified, etc. When we feel isolated, we fail to appreciate the interests we share with others, we are unable to access our common resources, we have no sense of a shared identity, and we feel powerless.


Action Facilitators:

Urgency, Hope, Anger, YCMAD, and Solidarity

             We can counter inertia with urgency. Urgency captures our attention and creates the space for new action. Urgency is less about time than it is about commitment.

Imagine that someone calls you up and says that he is recruiting for a 100-year plan to change the world. This is the beginning, and he’ll be calling a meeting sometime over the next six months. Would you be interested in going to that meeting, whenever it happens?

Now imagine that someone calls about an election that matters to you, with the news that the campaign has to contact 3000 targeted voters before Election Day, one week away. This person tells you that, if 220 volunteers contact 20 voters each, they can reach them all, and bring this election home. If you come to the headquarters at 6:00 pm tonight, you’ll meet the other volunteers, and they'll show you how to reach 20 voters in your neighborhood. Are you interested in going to that meeting? Urgency recognizes that “time is like an arrow.” The deadline of a campaign is one way to create urgency. Commitment and concentration of energy is required to launch anything new, and creating a sense of urgency often is a critical way to get the commitment which is required.

             Where can we find the courage to act in spite of our fear? Trying to eliminate that which we react to fearfully is a fool’s errand because it locates the source of our fear outside ourselves, rather than within our own hearts. On the other hand, trying to make ourselves “fearless” is counterproductive if we wind up acting more out of “nerve than brain.” Leaders sometimes prepare others for fear by warning them that the opposition will threaten them with this and woo them with that. The fact that these behaviors are expected reveals the opposition as more predictable and thus less to be feared.

What can we do about fear? The choice to act in spite of fear is the meaning of courage. Of all the emotions that help us find courage, perhaps most important is hope. So where do you go to get some hope? One source of hope is an experience of “credible solutions,” not only reports of success elsewhere, but also direct experience of small successes and small victories. Another important source of hope for many people is in their faith tradition, grounded in spiritual beliefs, cultural traditions, and moral understandings. Many of the great social movements – Gandhi, Civil Rights, Solidarity -- drew strength from religious traditions, and much of today's organizing is grounded in faith communities.

Our relationships offer another source of hope. We all know people who inspire hopefulness just by being around them. “Charisma” can be seen as the capacity to in­spire hope in others, inspiring others to believe in themselves. Lots of people have charisma, but some of us need to be encouraged to use it. Just as religious belief requires a “leap of faith,” Cornel West argues that pol­itics requires a “leap of hope.”[5]  More philosophically, Moses Maimonides, the Jewish scholar of the 15th Century, argued that hope is belief in the “plausibility of the possible” as opposed to the “necessity of the probable.” [6]And psychologists who explore the role of “positive emotions” give particular attention to the “psychology of hope.”[7] In concert with confidence and solidarity, hope can move us to act. 

What about apathy? One way to counter apathy is with anger – not rage, but outrage and indignation at unjust conditions. Constructive anger is based on the difference between what ought to be and what is - the way we feel when our moral order has been violated.  Sociologist Bill Gamson describes this as invoking an "injustice frame" to counter a "legitimacy frame."[8]  As scholars of “moral economy” have taught us, people rarely mobilize to protest inequality as such, but they do mobilize to protest “unjust” inequality. [9] In other words, our values, moral traditions, and sense of personal dignity function as critical sources of the motivation to act. This is one reason why organizing is so deeply rooted in moral traditions.

                           Leaders counter self-doubt with YCMAD - You Can Make A Difference. The best way to inspire this belief is to frame what you do around what people can do, not what they can’t do. If you design a plan calling for each new volunteer to recruit 100 people, and you provide no leads, training or coaching, you will only create deeper feelings of self-doubt. It is also important to recognize specific people for specific contributions at specific times and in specific ways. But recognition must be based on real accomplishment, not empty flattery. The idea is to spread accomplishment around and then recognize people for those accomplishments.

There is no recognition without accountability. Requiring accountability does not show lack of trust, but is evidence that what one is doing really matters.  Have you ever volunteered to walk a precinct in a campaign? They give you a packet with a voter list, tell you to mark the responses, and bring it back when you’re done. What happens if you go out for four hours, do a conscien­tious job and return to headquarters ready to report, only to hear, ““Oh, thanks a lot. Just throw it over there in the corner. See you next week.” What about all your work? Didn’t it matter enough for anyone to debrief you about it - let alone mark it on a wall chart and try to learn from it? Do you think you’ll go back “next week?” 

             Finally, we counter feelings of isolation with the experience of belovedness or solidarity. This is the role of mass meetings, singing, common dress, and shared language. This is why developing relationships with the people whom we hope to mobilize is important. And, because of the snowball effect, it is much easier to get people to join others who are already active.


Telling Your Public Story

Storytelling is action speech – how we directly translate our values into the motivation to act.  A story is crafted of just three elements: plot, character, and moral. The effect depends on the setting: who tells the story, who listens, where they are, why they are there, and when.















             A plot engages us, captures our interest, and makes us pay attention.  “I got up this morning, had breakfast, and came to school.” Is that a plot? Why? Why not?

How about: “I was having breakfast this morning when I heard a loud screeching coming from the roof. At that very moment I looked outside to where my car was parked, but it was gone!!!”  Now what’s going on? What’s the difference?

             A story begins. An actor is moving toward a desired goal. But then some kind of challenge appears. The plan is suddenly up in the air. The actor must figure out what to do. This is when we get interested. We want to find out what happens.

Why do we care? 

             Dealing with the unexpected – small and large – defines the texture of our lives. No more tickets at the movie theater. You’re about to lose your job. Our marriage is on the verge of break-up. We are constantly faced with the unexpected, and what we’re going to do. And what is the source of the greatest uncertainty around us? Other people. The subject of most stories is about how to interact with other people. 

             As human beings we make choices in the present, based on remembering the past and imagining the future. This is what it means to be an agent. But when we act out of habit, we don’t choose; we just follow the routine. It is only when the routines break down, when the guidelines are unclear, when no one can tell us what to do, that we make real choices and become the creators of our own lives, communities, and futures. Then we become the agents of our own fate. These moments can be as frightening as they are exhilarating.  

             A plot consists of just three elements: a challenge, a choice, and an outcome. Attending to plot is how we learn to deal with the unpredictable. Researchers report that most of the time that parents spend with their children is in story telling – stories of the family, the child’s stories, stories of the neighbors.  Bruner describes this as agency training: the way we learn how to process choices in the face of uncertainty. And because our curiosity about the unexpected is infinite, we invest billions of dollars and countless hours in films, literature and sports events – not to mention religious practices, cultural activities, and national celebrations. 



             Although a story requires a plot, it only works if we can identify with a character.  Through our empathetic identification with a protagonist, we experience the emotional content of the story. That is how we learn what the story has to teach to our hearts, not only our heads. As Aristotle wrote of Greek tragedy, this is how the protagonist’s experience can touch us and, perhaps, open our eyes.[10]  Arguments persuade with evidence, logic, and data. Stories persuade by this empathetic identification. Have you ever been to movie where you couldn’t identify with any of the characters? It’s boring. Sometimes we identify with protagonists that are only vaguely “like us” – like the road runner (if not the coyote) in the cartoons. Other times we identify with protagonists that are very much like us – as in stories about friends, relatives, neighbors. Sometimes the protagonists of a story are us, as when we find ourselves in the midst of an unfolding story, in which we are the authors of the outcome.





             Stories teach. We’ve all heard the ending – “and that is the moral of the story.” Have you ever been at a party where someone starts telling a story and they go on...and on...and on...? Someone may say (or want to say), “Get to the point!”  We deploy stories to make a point, and to evoke a response.

The moral of a successful story is felt understanding, not simply conceptual understanding. When stated only conceptually, many a moral becomes a banality.  We do not retell the story of David and Goliath because it teaches us how to vanquish giants. What the story teaches is that a “little guy” – with courage, resourcefulness, and imagination – can beat a “big guy,” especially one with Goliath’s arrogance. A fearful character, out of anger, acts courageously and emerges victorious. We feel David’s fear, anger, and courage, and we feel hopeful for our own lives because he is victorious.  Stories thus teach how to manage our emotions when challenged – how to be courageous, keep our cool, and trust our imagination— rather than the specific tactics to use in any one case.

             Stories teach us how to act in the “right” way. They are not simply examples and illustrations. When they are well told, we experience the point, and we feel hope. It is that experience, not the words as such, that can move us to action. Because sometimes that is the point – we have to act.



             Stories are told. They are not a disembodied string of words, images, and phrases. They are not messages, sound bites, or brands – although these rhetorical fragments may reference a story. Storytelling is fundamentally relational. 

As we listen, we evaluate the story, and we find it more or less easy to enter, depending on the storyteller. Is it his or her story? We hear it one way. Is it the story of a friend, a colleague, or a family member? We hear it another way. Is it a story without time, place, or specificity? We step back. Is it a story we share, perhaps a Bible story? Perhaps we draw closer to one another. Storytelling is how we interact with each other about values; how we share experiences with each other, counsel each other, comfort each other, and inspire each other to action.


Story of Self -- Story of Us -- Story of Now


We build our public story with three components. Our Story of Self allows others to experience the values that move us to lead. Our Story of Us makes common cause with a broader community whose values we share. And a Story of Now calls us to act, so we can shape the future in ways consistent with those values.










Story of Self

             When we tell our own story, we teach the values that our choices reveal, not as abstract principals, but as our lived experience. We reveal the kind of person we are to the extent that we let others identify with us. The more specific our stories, the more powerfully we can communicate our values or what moral philosopher Charles Taylor calls our “moral sources.” [11]

We construct stories of self around choice points – moments in our lives when we faced a challenge, had to make a choice, and experienced an outcome. We can access the values that motivate us by reflecting on these choice points, especially by telling them to another person who can give us feedback about what they are hearing. The other person often can “connect the dots” that we may not have connected because they are too obvious to us. By choosing among the stories of our own choice points, we can communicate our values most clearly to others.

A story is like a poem. A poem moves not by how long it is, nor how eloquent or complicated. A story or poem moves by offering an experience or moment through which we grasp the feeling that the poet communicates. The more specific the details we choose to recount, the more we can move our listeners.

             Some of us think that our personal story doesn’t matter, that others won’t be interested, or that we shouldn’t be talking about ourselves so much. On the contrary, if we do public work we have a responsibility to give a public account of ourselves - where we came from, why we do what we do, and where we think we’re going. Aristotle argued that rhetoric has three components - logos, pathos, and ethos – this is what he meant by ethos.[12] The logos is the logic of the argument. The pathos is the feeling the argument evokes. The ethos is the credibility of the person who makes the argument.

We don’t really have a choice about whether to have a Story of Self or not. If we don’t author our story, others will – and they may tell our story in ways that we may not like. Not because they are malevolent, but because as others try to make sense of who we are, what we’re up to and the why of our actions, they draw on their own experience, especially their experience of people they consider to be “like” us. 


Story of Us

             A public story is not only an account of the speaker’s personal experience. All self stories are “nested,” including fragments of other stories drawn from our culture, our faith, our parents, our friends, the movies we’ve seen, and the books we’ve read.  While individuals have their own stories, communities, movements, organizations and nations weave collective stories out of distinct threads. Our individual threads intersected on the day that Kennedy was assassinated or when we saw the planes hit the Twin Towers. We shared a crisis, and we learned the morals about how we are to act and how life is to be lived. Points of intersection become the focus of a shared story – the way we link individual threads into a common weave. A Story of Us brings forward the values that move us as a community.

How does the storyteller become part of this larger story? Learning to tell a Story of Us requires deciding who the “us” is -- which values shape that identity and which are most relevant to the situation at hand. Stories then not only teach us how to live, they also teach us how to distinguish who “we” are from “others,” reducing uncertainty about what to expect from our community. In the midst of treacherous weather, earthquakes, disease and other environmental sources of great unpredictability – the behavior, actions and reactions of the people among whom we live, and our shared stock of stories, gives us greater safety.

Our cultures are repositories of stories. Community stories about challenges we have faced, why we stood up to them -- our values and our shared goals -- and how we overcame them weave throughout our political beliefs and religious traditions. We tell community stories again and again as folk sayings, popular songs, religious rituals, and community celebrations (e.g., Easter, Passover, 4th of July). Just like individual stories, collective stories can inspire hope or generate despair. We also weave new stories from old ones. The Exodus story, for example, served the Puritans when they colonized North America, but it also served Southern blacks claiming their civil rights in the freedom movement.

Organizations that lack a “story” lack an identity, a culture, core values that can be articulated and drawn upon to motivate. Leaders learn to tell the Story of Us – the story of their organization – by identifying the “choice points” of the organization’s journey, recounting experiences that communicate the values embedded in the work of the organization.


Story of Now

             Stories of Now articulate the challenges we face now, the choices we are called upon to make, and the meaning of making the right choice. Stories of Now are set in the past, present and future. The challenge is now -- we are called upon to act because of our legacy and who we have become, and the action that we take now can shape our desired future.

These are stories in which we are the protagonists. We face a crisis, a challenge. It’s our choice to make. And we have a story of hope, if we make the right choice. The storyteller among us whom we have authorized to “narrativize” this moment finds a way to articulate our crisis and challenge as a choice, reminds us of our moral resources (our stories, stories of our family, our community, our culture, our faith), and offers a hopeful vision we can share as we take our first steps on the journey.


The Challenge

             Like any story, a story of hope begins with the recognition that an urgent challenge can become a moment of choice. We feel the uncertainty combined with a sense of promise. We feel the urgency, combined with possibility: do we act or not? By turning a bad, hopeless, or overwhelming situation into a moment of choice, we have given the moment real significance in our lives.  We are in the midst of a new story. While we may have believed ourselves resigned to an inevitable fate, a story of hope moves us to consider new possibilities.

In Shakespeare’s Henry V, a young king faces his band of exhausted, discouraged Englishmen. They are outnumbered many times by the fresh French troops they will face in battle the next day. All night long, Henry has wandered from camp to camp in disguise, listening to his men. He asks for a hand, climbs atop a cart, and begins to tell a story. Henry begins his speech to his men, quite directly, by giving them the choice to leave:


Rather proclaim it Westmoreland, through my host

             That he which hath no stomach to this fight

             Let him depart.  His passport shall be made,

             And crowns for convoy put into his purse.

             We would not die in that man’s company

             That fears his fellowship to die with us.[13]        


If Henry merely reported the odds of victory, and offered his soldiers the choice to leave, many of them likely would have run for the hills.  A leader motivates his or her constituency by rooting that choice in shared values that call them to action. By presenting the battle as a noble choice, Henry opens his soldiers’ eyes to the possibility of everlasting honor. 


This story shall the good man teach his son;

             And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,

             From this day to the ending of the world,

             But we in it shall be remember’d;

             We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;

             For he to-day that sheds his blood with me

             Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,

             This day shall gentle his condition:

             And gentlemen in England now a-bed

             Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,

             And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks

             That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.


What Henry is telling his men is a new story, one in which he and his men are the principal characters, and it is a story of hope. The outcome of the battle may well depend on the hope he can inspire, regardless of the odds. Perhaps their Welsh longbows might give them a tactical advantage over the mounted, armored French, but only if they have the courage to stand and fight. And that’s why King Henry has become a storyteller.


The Choice

             Why is it that we are called upon to face this challenge? What is it about who we are that demands this of us? What is it about who we are that tells us we can do this? By articulating why we, as a group, are called to face this challenge, by calling up stories drawn from our experience, our shared culture and community, leaders evoke values that compel us to act. The moment of choice, then, is not only a choice for an individual, but for a group.

Real choice is an experience of freedom.  When we choose to act in a way that honors certain beliefs and values over others, those values that we honor grow stronger.  But the choice is in the action.  Motivation that does not turn into action is meaningless. The change begins when we act.   It’s the taking of the action that becomes transformative, that starts a new pathway.  Before Henry’s speech, his men felt resigned to their grim fate.  Afterwards, they willingly choose to fight for their eternal glory.

By transforming ourselves into courageous actors and members of a courageous group, we foster a sense of collective identity that helps each of us feel supported in the risks we take, and we transform our world.

The Outcome: Where’s the Hope?

             To act with courage is to act in the face of fear. Many emotions help us act in the face of fear, but hope matters most. Hope for the future can trump the fear to risk reaching for it.

Hope is specific, not abstract. What can we hope for? Where are we going? What’s the vision? When God wants to inspire the Israelites in Exodus, he doesn’t offer vague hope, but describes a land “flowing with milk and honey.”[14] We can imagine what that land would look like and feel like.

This is the crucial point at which story and strategy overlap because the one key element in hope and strategy is a credible vision of how to get from here to there. So the job of devising a story of hope cannot be completed until the strategic work is done, to articulate a vision of how to move forward. This is the moment in which story (why) and strategy (how) overlap and in which, as poet Seamus Heaney writes, “Justice can rise up, and hope and history rhyme.”[15]

A vision of hope can unfold one chapter at a time. It can begin, for example, with simply getting that number of people to show up at a meeting that you committed to do. You can build a vision of hope by winning a “small” victory, showing that change is possible. What turns a small victory into a source of hope is its interpretation as part of a greater vision. In churches, when people have a “new story” to tell about themselves, it is often in the form of “testimony” – a person sharing an account of moving from despair to hope, the significance of the experience strengthened by the telling of it.  Sometimes other communities have already won what our community seeks. They can come and tell us their story, giving us far greater hope when we hear from them in person.

             Hope is not to be found in lying about the facts, but may be in changing the meaning of the facts. Shakespeare’s King Henry stirs hope in his men’s hearts by changing their view of themselves. No longer are they a few bedraggled soldiers led by a young and inexperienced king in an obscure corner of France who are about to be wiped out by an overwhelming force. Instead, they can become a “happy few,” united with their king in solidarity, holding an opportunity to grasp immortality in their hands, to become legends in their own time, a legacy for their children and grand children. This is their time!

             Finally, for the claim that “You Can Make a Difference” to be credible, the action must begin right here, right now, in this room, with action each one of us can take. It’s the story of a credible strategy, with an account of how -- starting with who and where we are, and how we can, step by step, get to where we want to go. Our action can call forth the actions of others, and their actions can call others, and together these actions can carry the day. It’s like the old protest song Pete Seeger used to sing:

“One man’s hands can’t tear a prison down.

Two men’s hands can’t tear a prison down.

But if two and two and fifty make a million,

We’ll see that day come round. We’ll see that day come round.”[16]



             We do much of our storytelling in celebrations. A celebration is not a party. It is a way that members of a community come together to honor who they are, what they have done, and where they are going -- often symboli­cally. Celebrations may take place at times of sadness, as well as times of great joy. Celebrations provide rituals that allow us to join in enacting a vision of our community -- at least in our hearts. Institutions that retain their vitality are rich in celebrations. In the Church, for example, Mass is "celebrated." Harvard's annual celebration is called Graduation and lasts an entire week.

             Storytelling is at its most powerful at beginnings -- for individuals, their childhood; for groups, their formation; for movements, their launching; and for nations, their founding.  Celebrations are a way we interpret important events, recognize important contributions, acknowledge a common identity, and deepen our sense of community.  The way that we interpret these moments begins to establish norms, create expectations, and shape patterns of behavior, which then influence all subsequent development. And we draw on them again and again. Nations institutionalize their founding story as a renewable source of guidance and inspiration. Most faith traditions enact a weekly retelling of their story of redemption, usually rooted in their founding. Well-told stories help turn moments of great crises into moments of “new beginnings.”



Narrative allows us to communicate the emotional content of our values. Narrative is not talking “about” values; rather narrative embodies and communicates those values. And it is through the shared experience of our values that we can engage with others, motivate one another to act, and find the courage to take risks, explore possibility and face the challenges we must face.


      ©Marshall Ganz, Kennedy School, 2007


[1] G. E. Marcus, (2002), The Sentimental Citizen. (University Park, PA, Penn State University Press).

[2] Ibid.

[3] M. Nussbaum, (2001), Upheavals of Thought:  The intelligence of emotions. (New York, Cambridge University Press).         

[4] S. Augustine, (1991), Book 8. Confessions. (New York, Oxford University Press).

[5] West, Cornel, (1994), Race Matters. (New York, Vintage Books).

[6]  Maimonides.

[7] Martin E.P. Seligman and Mihaly Csikszentmihaly, “Positive Psychology: An Introduction”, American Psychologist, 2000.

[8] W. A. Gamson, (1992), Talking Politics. (New York, Cambridge University Press).

[9] James C. Scott (1976). Moral Economy of the Peasant (New Haven: Yale University Press).

[10] Aristotle, The Poetics.

[11] Charles Taylor, (1989) Sources of the Self: The Making of Modern Identity. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press).

[12] Aristotle, The Rhetoric.

[13] William Shakespeare, Henry V, Act IV, Scene 3, “We Happy Few,” 140-149.

[14] The Bible, Exodus 3:9.

[15] Seamus Heaney, “The Cure at Troy”, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux (1991).

[16] Seeger, Pete, (1964), Fall River Music, Inc.