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Leadership, Story, and Collective Resonance

An Interview with Susan M. Osborn, Ph.D.

Little did Susan Osborn know, when she decided to teach a newly-created graduate school course, what impact it would have on her life. Feeling adrift professionally and personally, Susan had been missing the passion that fueled her earlier success as a professor, author, and practitioner in the organizational systems field. In this interview with Renee Levi, Susan describes the ten-week course and how it transformed the lives of those who participated – students and teachers alike.

RL: Susan, would you help me enter into your experience of collective resonance?

SO: It’s the first session of class – “Storytelling as a Leadership Tool.” This will be a ten-week course. It’s an elective course and it’s the first time it’s being taught at Chapman University. I have asked a colleague, Gail, to co-teach the course with me because she has been involved in the field of storytelling for about 15 years. Her primary interest is in storytelling as a healing approach, a healing tool, but she has also been teaching at Chapman in the Organizational Leadership program, so she’s familiar with the objectives of the program and the kind of students we get. And she’s very enthusiastic about this way to look at storytelling. She comes to the table with some very rich stories that fit right in with the course. As we’ve had preliminary meetings she has helped me to see ways that I have naturally used stories and examples in classroom teaching but haven’t called it storytelling per se. For many years, I had been using case studies and drawing on my own personal and professional stories to help students understand various models, concepts, and principles.

So it’s the first night of class. Gail and I have met a couple of times to scope out what we’re going to do and I have put together a kind of generic outline for the course to say what I think is going to happen, but I tell the students everything is up for grabs. This is an elective course; it’s going to be pass/fail. We will decide what pass means in the course and we can change the assignments. We can do whatever we want in the class. Gail and I are there to facilitate so it won’t be total chaos. There are some guidelines we need to follow, of course, to meet the specifications of the university as an institution, but it’s no problem because these people all know what they are.

To introduce the way we’re going to start the class, I picked two questions that come from a book by Annette Simmons called The Story Factor. Oh, I might add I did my usual research, which meant I read about 25 books on the subject.

RL: Wow…

SO: (Chuckle). I don’t ever come unprepared; I’m usually over-prepared. I have way too much material. I have to really be careful I don’t inundate people with stuff. But, this book is considered one of the classics.

What Simmons does is assert that storytelling is a very powerful way to lead people from the standpoint of corrective action, performance review, or explaining a job. So this is nuts and bolts stuff. This is not visioning, this is not strategic planning or large-scale intervention. She’s talking about where the rubber meets the road, which I think is an excellent way to approach storytelling, especially with people who want to expand their leadership skills. As a way to mirror theory in practice, she says there are two questions every leader must ask and answer to the satisfaction of that person’s direct reports. The first question is, “Who am I?” and the second question is, “Why am I here?”

When I read that, I said, “This is wild!” Those are not typical questions that you would think of a line supervisor spending time analyzing, and then presenting that material to his or her direct reports. But were one to do that, what a tremendous way it would provide to begin an authentic relationship.

So I thought, “Okay, those questions sound good to me, so that’s the way we’ll start.” And I kicked the ball off. I had done some thinking about how I was going to answer them and I didn’t really have pat answers but I had an advantage because I’d had time to think about what to say. But as I got into that class, I was just in the moment. And it wasn’t anything like what I had planned. I just started talking and telling my story without consciously intending to do so. And I told the truth. I decided, okay this is it. And I said things that I would not ordinarily say in a class…things about where I am in life, problems I’m having…not a big long harangue…but basically I said, “I’m here because I believe so strongly that this approach is magical, is powerful. I think by being in this experience together we’re going to come out different people.” And I said, “Don’t ask me where I get that…I don’t have any previous experience to base this on. I’ve read some material but I have not been in a group like this before.”

RL: That was so honest…

SO: It was. I said, “I don’t know where this is coming from. I’ve talked to some of you individually about my excitement and that’s why you’re here, because you’re fascinated with how I could get so fired up about something I know so little about.”

And I said, “I’m here because I feel like I’m in a place in my life…I’m very much in a transition…and I don’t know where I’m going. I’ve done a lot of things I set out to do. I can’t seem to get fired up about anything and this is the first thing I’ve gotten really fired up about in a while. This thing has grabbed hold of me and I don’t have an explanation for it.” I said, “I feel like I’m getting direction to make this class happen. I am being directed to do this course and I don’t know where the direction is coming from. I mean, I feel it’s very spiritual. I feel a spiritual connection here. I don’t know where we’re going with this, but I trust it, because when this kind of thing has happened to me before, it has been very meaningful.”

Well, then Gail did the same thing! She answered the questions for her and she told a story about how her life had been changed by getting into storytelling. And we hadn’t planned this but it was nice because she enhanced and augmented what I had said. She said, “In a sense my life is a testament to what Susan said. Since I’ve gotten involved in storytelling, my life has changed. I have been healed, personally, and the women I work with have been healed by telling their stories.” (She teaches but she’s also very involved with homeless women and women who need help in understanding systems – well, who doesn’t, but - I mean people who are really destitute and who, with some intervention, can be on their way. She’s a person who does that kind of thing.

Well, that seemed to set the tone. I said, “As we’re answering these questions we have a continuum that we’re talking about. And it’s fine to pass. You don’t need to say anything. It’s fine to say, ‘I’m Jane Smith. I’m taking this class because it’s an elective and I need the credit.’ Or, ‘I’m here because there are only two OL courses that were offered and I’ve taken the other class.’ You can be very factual, matter of fact, and you can do anything else you want.” Well…nobody was simply factual.

RL: You gave them space. There was a spaciousness about that. And also the flexibility you said in the beginning…there were no guidelines, pretty much.

SO: Right. And I felt very vulnerable. I think that was a key. My vulnerability helped create a safe space for others to be vulnerable. One woman told about the death of her daughter in an automobile accident six months previously. She said she had not talked with anybody about it. One woman’s husband had left her for a younger woman and she had not shared that experience with anyone. She had closed down her feelings about it. And they both related their stories from the standpoint of, “I think I’m in this class because I’m supposed to say something about this experience and it already feels good because I’m talking about it and that’s why I think I’m here.” That was the first night!

RL: (Laughter). First couple of hours, really…

SO: First couple of hours? That was in the first hour! And it just continued like that, this resonance, in that space. Every week we experienced it again. Every week we got into that special place and each person’s story would build on another person’s story and we would bring out things. A frequent phrase was, “Oh that reminds me of…” And then someone would say something and then that would remind someone else of something and we kept building. At no point did we have any instructions about how to do dialogue, how to balance inquiry and advocacy, or about how to actively listen to each other. It flowed.

SO: And when people wrote their stories, their writing was exquisite. These were people - I’d say most of them - whose papers are terrible. (Most people, these days, can’t write in terms of academese. Our schools no longer produce people who possess solid writing skills.) But when they wrote their stories, they were publishable.

RL: Amazing.

SO: A totally different academic experience.

RL: Why? Why was the writing publishable when it was a story?

SO: I think one reason is that you don’t have the protocol and the rules to follow. For example, we have the American Psychological Association (APA) Guidelines.

RAL: Those are barriers?

SO: Well, APA protocol can be a facilitator if you want to get published in an academic journal. If you’ve followed APA guidelines and send your material to an editor, and that person puts your stuff next to someone else’s that isn’t aligned with APA protocol, you’re more likely to get yours published. But it’s a barrier because there are so many rules to learn. I don’t think we’ve acknowledged the extent to which the rules intimidate people and act as a barrier to self-expression.

So, I’m aware now of teaching differently, having different expectations, and talking to people differently about their work. I say there’s room, in fact not just room; I want to support and encourage all kinds of learning and the way it’s reflected in the way people express themselves.

RL: Susan, I’m feeling this resonance. Back when you were talking about it, I was feeling it. I was feeling it…

SO: Mm-hmm….

RL: I was seeing it in you. I was seeing the emotion and vulnerability, I think, come back a little bit.

SO: Mm-hmmm….

RL: And let me ask you this, if you can remember, Susan. At the time, in that space, telling your story, and then starting the cycle – did it feel like starting a spiral? Do you remember how it felt physically? Do you remember where in your body the resonance was presenting itself to you? What got activated? How did it feel?

SO: We noticed a feeling of being drawn together and we all commented on it pretty early. We had a break and people didn’t want to leave the room. We wanted to talk about what we were experiencing kind of off-line. So as soon as we stood, people were congregating. We finally had to say if anybody needs to get anything to eat or drink or go to the restroom, we want you to go and come back. Well, then everybody left the classroom and ran back.

But the energy was so positive. And it was different from other things I’ve experienced in groups. For example, I’ve been in a lot of gestalt seminars. We used to do these things called marathons and we’d go all night, back in the ‘70s. We’d go to these workshops and stay up all night and everyone would self-reveal and the energy would be very positive and we’d get attached. But when we left the seminar we’d never hear from anybody again. And, so, it was a little bit seductive. Looking back I remember feeling like I’d gotten drawn into sharing thoughts and feelings, but I’m not sure I felt good about baring my soul. It turns out these people weren’t interested in keeping in touch. I’d think about it later and it kind of gave me a bad aftertaste.

In some ways the highs felt a little bit like drug highs. They were wonderful but you came down. There would be a cycle. You’d go real high and then you might crash! I remember a gestalt seminar at Esalen that lasted 10 days where we did stone carving and talked about our stones and ourselves. We lived together in Michael Murphy’s house. We got so close! After it was over I sent notes, I sent cards. No one responded… So it was over. It’s a window…almost like on an airplane where you bare your soul to someone sitting next to you who you never see again.

But sharing little vignettes and stories in this class wasn’t like that. It was a very soft, solid, energizing feeling. That’s why, when you talked about resonance, I felt this connection with you because I think you’re onto something similar that is truly energizing. It doesn’t leave you. I’ve got three people from that class in my current class and we have to be careful we don’t keep talking about storytelling. We have other people in a new class who weren’t in the storytelling class who keep saying, “I can’t wait to take that class because you keep talking about it!” Well, we don’t want them to feel left out. But those who were in the storytelling class often say, “Like we did in the storytelling class, I want to tell a story here…” And it moves us to the next place, conceptually and emotionally.

RL: Was it palpable?

SO: It was palpable. We were constantly sharing memorable experiences. Often we were also sharing the same feelings. And as we thought up words to describe the effect storytelling was having on us, they were very similar. The words were “comforting, supportive, warm, and fun”! Fun came up the first night and was mentioned a lot. At the tenth class people said, “I’m gonna be in tears ‘cause I haven’t had so much fun…”

RL: (Laughter)

SO: “This thing has been a kick!”

RL: So people laughed?

SO: Oh, we laughed all the time. We laughed, cried, and went through the whole range of emotions, but, again, it felt really sincere. And trust is a big thing. In the very beginning we trusted that wherever we were going, it was going to turn out okay. And it was. It was more than okay.

RL: Susan, if you could identify where in your body you felt something, could you?

SO: I would say, for me, it’s in my upper shoulder area because I tend to carry so much tension there. In bio-energetic terms, I’m a hanger person. There’s that hanger that extends across my shoulders that keeps me ready, ready for action.

RL: Ah… Okay. Armor…

SO: Armor…

RL: Warrior…

SO: Right. Warrior.

RL: Like here? (pointing to shoulders)

SO: It’s those muscles right in your back, right there. There are hard knots in there. So, those relaxed. And when those relax for me, all systems are relaxed. Those are pressure points, almost like you’d think of acupressure points. I was very conscious that those muscles were relaxed. What that means, in terms of being a facilitator, was I could let go.

I could sense there was going to be leadership in this group and I didn’t have to be the leader. Gail didn’t have to be the leader. I mean, I had confidence that Gail could do the whole thing by herself and she felt that I could also, but it was that sense of responsibility. Like, here, I’ve gotten some people into this. I’ve said, “You’ve got to take this class; it’s going to be dynamite!” And I was saying that without even thinking. It occurred to me, “Well, gee, what if it isn’t?” And then I thought, “Okay, whatever happens will be fine.”

RL: So there was a shifting point…

SO: There was a shift..

RL: Because you could let go of control and responsibility…

SO: I could have fun!

RL: And then how did it feel in that room?

SO: It felt very whole because it felt like we were integrating all parts of ourselves; we were drawing on the past, the present, and the future. We were integrating theoretical material with our daily lives. The framework that Gail and I put together really proved to be good for a backbone, the skeleton; it served as an integrating mental framework that we could hang stuff on. So we really didn’t change that. That was okay.

RL: Susan, you may have answered this question, but I want to ask you again in case there were other things. It has to do with points of shift, your conscious awareness of points of shift in the group. You started with the vulnerability piece that I would describe as an opening, opening yourself to receive and to give in an authentic way. Then you talked about being able to let go of control and relax without feeling like you had to take charge. That was another shift. Are you aware of any other points of shift over time?

SO: Absolutely. There were individual shifts from the first to the second week. The second session, when we came in, we had two people who right off the bat started talking about the fact they really hadn’t planned to stay past the first session. They said they’d committed to checking it out and they’d actually signed up for back-up courses. One of them said he was already using what we had done in the first class and “there’s no way I’m gonna drop this course!” He works with juvenile offenders and feels he’s in a quasi-parental role, telling them how to live their lives, telling them what to do based on his own upbringing in Harlem. Instead, he started telling them stories! As a result, “You could have heard a pin drop,” he said. “Now I have their attention. I now know how to work with these kids.” And he went through the class sharing with us what he’s doing with these young people and how everything is working. He confided, “This class has changed my whole life.”

And the woman who was ambivalent said, “I started writing my personal story about four years ago as a way to stay sane and I know now that by taking this course, I’m going to finish writing my story. I’m going to tell it to you at the last session. So it’s very important for me to stay in this class.” And she did.

There were two men in the class from an air force base not far away. One man wanted to take the course – he’s a risk-taker – and he resonated with the idea right off. His buddy, who’s also his boss, did not want to take the course in any way. Well, they were very, very close friends, really depended on each other, and the first guy talked his buddy, and boss, into taking the course.

Well, along the way, the one who wanted to take the class decided his final project was going to be to create a fictional story about a character from Ireland during the time of the Knights of the Round Table. His story featured a character much like his friend (and boss). He described, in intimate terms, what this friend means to the main character in the story, who is the author in real life. The narration goes into detail about how the two of them deal with challenges, fight battles, and return victorious. Throughout the story the author refers to himself as Ainmire and to his buddy as Carrig.

I’m going to sidetrack here for a minute, Renee, to comment on how referring to ourselves in the third person provides safety. When I regard myself as an “it,” I gain a more neutral, objective perspective. I found in writing The System Made Me Do It, that I could say all this stuff about myself because I created a person outside myself who was the main character. Because other people didn’t know what was fact and what was fiction, it didn’t seem like I was really revealing that much. In the storytelling class we all learned how to use the third person form of writing to create distance from our egos. We wrote stories about ourselves, about our leadership styles, about our futures, and about our own thoughts as if we were writing about someone else.

Well, this is what the first man did. His friend didn’t hear the story until it was told it in class. You talk about a moving experience! We all sat there, amazed at what we’d seen and heard. And to top it off, the second man picked up on the theme of the first man’s story. The last night of the course he told his version of the same story, using the same characters. In his version he explained what his friendship with the first man meant to him.

RL: Oh my…..

SO: Yeah…two men actively involved with the military…

RL: Wonderful.

SO: They would never have done that in any other setting. There’s no other setting that would permit them to do that without having to explain a million things, like justifying their points of view or feeling they had to give long explanations. In their stories they both relaxed their egos enough to tell the truth. This was a big shift for both of them. What’s even more interesting is, that as both of these men work on the Capstone Report (where they draw together all the material they’ve covered in the master’s degree program to prepare for the comprehensive exam), they’re continuing to write their stories. This is the first time this report has ever been done in a narrative form, which is another shift.

RL: Well, it sounds like this whole process is quite powerful. So, I think what I heard is that the shifting point here was when people realized they were in a safe place to tell things about themselves they usually wouldn’t share with strangers. That has to do with going from being on guard to trusting. It’s really about being able to tell the truth again.

SO: Yes, the part about us quickly learning to trust each other does stand out. Another shift that was important came about in regard to a woman who was very dissatisfied in her job. Extremely capable, she’d had a position of power and authority. There was a merger and she was demoted to the status of a worker bee. She’d been chafing under the micromanagement of someone with less experience but she wanted to stay with the company. She’d just been agonizing over trying to figure out what to do. She wrote a story about herself in this situation and made it into a fairytale with a happy ending. By the end of the course she was using all the techniques and tools that she wrote about in the story, including ways she was training her supervisor.

RL: So she rewrote her story.

SO: She rewrote her story.

RL: So, for the group that was a shifting point?

SO: Yes.

RL: Why?

SO: We all saw the possibility, the potential to do that.

RL: Susan, this question sounds so trite after having spent this time with you, listening closely and watching your body language, but what value has this experience of collective resonance had for your life or work?

SO: It’s it for me. It’s what my life is about now. I look for collective resonance everywhere. What situations will offer new opportunities? One thing I haven’t mentioned that I learned is that stories resonate with a different part of the brain than didactic learning does. Some people say it is the true way our brain works. I’m not a neurologist. I don’t know if that’s true, but I know it works for me and it works for a lot of people.

Storytelling is so effortless and so much fun! I think that’s something that I’ve come away with. So much of what I’ve done has involved struggles like the thing in my shoulders…the warrior…you’ve got to get out there and work, you’ve got to be a high achiever. Sharing stories is such a kick!

It also provides leverage. The idea of the trim tab on a big yacht shows how, with a little something, a huge shift in direction can come about. I think that’s what we experienced in the 10-week experience together. It has changed us! It changed our perspectives of life, of each other, and of being together. It really put meat on the bones in terms of dialogue and learning organizations. At the heart of human exchange and collaborative learning is passing along stories.

RL: It’s interesting, you use the word heart. You were saying it resonates in a different part of the brain, I’m wondering if it’s not just the brain that it’s resonating with.

SO: Mm-hmmm…

RL: That’s what I’m asking about in this study because I think that we are so brain-oriented in this society. I think we need to consider ways to balance the acquisition and processing of facts with other kinds of intelligence.

What’s happening below the neck? Right now, in this moment, we are not only connecting from an intellectual point of view, we’re resonating vibrationally. Our hearts are beating, our cells are actually moving, and there are sound waves moving between us. Through the air, through water, wherever we are, we’re connected.

SO: Oh, absolutely. At a quantum level, everything, everywhere is interconnected. We know that now.

RL: So, given your experience Susan, does that feel like what happened in that room?

SO: Yes. One of the things I noticed early on was the class was supposed to end at ten but the security guard had to come and chase us out by 10:30. People just kept hugging.

RL: Hugging?

SO: And most people don’t do a lot of hugging at Chapman; it’s not part of the culture. It’s not like schools when every time you see somebody you hug him or her. At the end of our session people hugged each other and they didn’t let go right away. It wasn’t just superficial; you know that hug where you kind of touch someone like you don’t want to catch germs? These were full body hugs!

RL: That reminds me of what you said in the beginning, which is that people didn’t want to leave the room during breaks. I guess energetically that was a hug too.

SO: Yes.

RL: So there was energy that was created not just by the words and concepts, but by the physical beings. Because you were authentic, because you were truly in yourselves… wholly together. So, whether it’s a physical hug between two people or it’s the positive energy you’ve created in the room that people are not willing to leave, to let go of that embrace, they’re probably similar things.

SO: Yeah…I think you’re right. We didn’t want to leave the room! RL: So, my final question, Susan. If you were to take stock of what you’re feeling right this moment – even in physical terms, if you wish – what would it be? What are your feelings right now? SO: I get so excited about this topic, so energized. As soon as I start talking about it I feel excited, youthful, optimistic, centered, engaged, rapport. I feel rapport with you. I’ve been doing most of the talking but you’re definitely…we’re having a conversation even though most of the talking is on my part. I feel relaxed, fun, spiritual.

RL: Mmmmm…

SO: Human. Connected to the human race. Possibility, potential. Organic. Tied to nature. Lifelong learning. Clear-headed. Relaxed. The energy’s moving all through. I don’t have cold toes – I tend to get cold toes. Integrated.

RL: Wonderful. Thank you, Susan. I’ve loved listening to your story.

Epilogue: Susan has found a direction she feels passionately about in her life. She teaches “Storytelling as a Leadership Tool” for the M.A. in Organizational Leadership program at Chapman in Sacramento, California, is initiating a storytelling certificate program through Chapman’s extension division, leads storytelling workshops, and makes storytelling presentations to business and professional groups. What she has gleaned from these opportunities and experiences will be condensed in a new book aimed at showing others how to jazz up their lives through story.

(Link to Profile for Susan Osborn)

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