Leading through stories of place

Sep 25 2015 by Michael Jones Print This Article

Questions of identity and quality of place need to be in the forefront of our thinking now. Not only are they questions that inspire creative endeavors, they also inspire leaders and the organizations they lead. And organizations that foster a sense of their story of place may hold a distinct advantage over those that see their priorities only in technical or economic terms.

Place is the wellspring from which all life flows. Leaders, like artists and poets, come from places - and make places for themselves - that instill and reflect certain deep values they hold regarding who they are and how they lead.

For example; at a recent conference where a group of community leaders in Atlantic Canada were asked about what ‘the story of place’ meant for them, they reflected on finding common ground in their deep ties to land and sea - to a mist-filled coastline both gentle and unyielding and to the enduring loyalty to their stories and community. This long history of living on the coast gave them the gift of a perspective larger than any one person or any individual’s self-interest.

Being place-based helps leaders discover what actions they can take in order to be unique and comfortable within their own skin. A sense of place also teaches them how to create places for others in the form of cultures, relationships, environments - and an atmosphere - which will enable others to do their best work.

For Paul Polman, CEO of consumer-products giant Unilever, to be place-based is to treat thousands of small tea farmers with the same regard as he does shareholders. To him, serving the common good in business also served as the incubator for creating a positive future.

“When our generation grew up after the Second World War, our parents wanted the same kind of thing; they wanted us to go to university and have a better life. Most of them were working for the greater good of society,” he said in a March 2013 interview with Canada’s The Globe and Mail newspaper.

Soon after the height of the 2008 financial crisis, he realized that the company had become too internally-focused. In their efforts to meet shareholder value, Unilever had lost sense of who they were and what they stood for. Polman also realized this was an ideal time to kick-start change. He and his executive team decided to get the company back to its roots in serving the greater good by re-engaging their own story of place.

The Globe and Mail piece continued:

I went back into the origins of Unilever, to discover that [founder] Lord [William] Lever invented the bar soap in Victorian Britain because cholera was such a problem. One of two babies did not make it beyond year one. The problem he tried to solve involved hygiene. In the origins of many companies, leaders were working in the interests of society, not in the interests of shareholders alone. In this context Polman emphasized that focusing only on shareholder value is a very destructive concept.

In order to create a culture of place Paul Polman believed that the business environment needed to be something other than a ‘personal wealth accumulator’. Instead, he was committed to bringing the world back into balance through encouraging leaders to serve the greater good and put this ahead of their own self-interest.

Polman’s quest to redefine the purpose of business in the context of the mythic roots of placemaking is echoed in another example.

For the past three years I have been co-chair of the Mariposa Roundtable, ‘mapping’ the richness of our heritage by exploring our communities’ storied connection to the mythical town of Mariposa as detailed by the much loved Canadian humorist Stephen Leacock. As our community embarks on an ambitious downtown revitalization and waterfront development plan - and also as it struggles to reinvent itself and its identity following the decline of its once thriving industrial based economy - community leaders are asking what is the story we want to tell. That is, what is the story that serves as a touchstone and speaks to our unique identity? And how can this story help us learn from our past in order to create a positive, creative and sustainable narrative for the future.

Leacock understood how to tap into this deep affection we have for place. He recognized that as we grow into adulthood it is through our connections to place that we keep the dreams of childhood alive. Whether it was the story of the sinking of the paddle wheeler Mariposa Belle - when, after great consternation, passengers discover they have sunk in only three feet of water and so can call off their rescuers and walk to shore - or the anxieties we all share of one’s first banking experience, Mariposa, through the universal language of a humour free of malice, illuminates how the beauty of the human spirit can be elevated and seen in a more edifying light. Our imperfections served up with a twinkling eye instead of the harsh glare of judgment and guilt..

Each organization and community has a story of place that defines its character and uniqueness. It is a story that reflects its unique dreams, history, economy, culture and character of its citizens as expressed through its aspirations, accomplishments, challenges and possibilities. Understanding the uniqueness of its stories of place is the foundation for building an innovative economy. And an engaged community is the most knowledgeable resource for creating a story for the future that reflects the uniqueness of the place in which they want to live and grow now.

This leads us to ask some important questions:

1. Where have we experienced a connection to place that has inspired our imagination? Where was it and how did it feel?

2. When have we had a similar experience in our community (buildings, nature, groups, neighbourhoods, heritage, etc) where we have also felt most ‘at home’? That is, places that offer the greatest sense of connection, aliveness, vitality and satisfaction?

3. How do these places inspire our aspirations and dreams - our story of place - for the future?

4. How does this story reflect the richness and accomplishments of our heritage past?

5. In what ways does a sense of place create a unique brand or voice for our community or organization - that is, a signature theme that would draw visitors and or clients to us?

6. What challenges and opportunities does the community or organization face at the present time - the gap between what we want and what is - that a story of place may help resolve?

7. What unique gifts and assets do we have now in the community or organization that would serve as catalysts for creating a story of place?

8. What leadership capacities will be needed to develop this story for the future?

Too often, we attempt to undertake large systemic transformational changes without taking into account the narrative that holds everything together. By looking at place as both something to return to and also something to grow out from - orienting us on a trajectory that includes the past present and future - and by realizing that a place is not an object or a thing, but a power and a presence, we can partner with our stories that are themselves deeply transformative, opening our hearts to the shared experience of beauty, aliveness and possibility.

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About The Author

Michael Jones
Michael Jones

Michael Jones is a leadership educator, author and Juno-nominated pianist/composer. His most recent book, The Soul of Place: Re-imagining Leadership Through Nature, Art and Community, is the third in a series asking how leaders can re- imagine places as living systems inspired by nature, art, community and our deepening humanity.