Denning is the author or co-author of several acclaimed books which include The Springboard: How Storytelling Ignites Action in Knowledge Era Organizationsw, Squirrel, Inc.: A Fable of Leadership Through Storytelling, Storytelling in Organizations: How Narrative and Storytelling Are Transforming Twenty-first Century Management that he co-authored with John Seely Brown, Katalina Groh, and Larry Prusak, The Leader’s Guide to Storytelling: Mastering the Art and Discipline of Business Narrative, and most recently The Secret Language of Leadership: How Leaders Inspire Action Through Narrative.
Morris: Storytelling has been a popular activity for centuries. How do you explain the fact that, only in recent years have executives begun to understand and appreciate the potential value and, more importantly, the impact of the business narrative?
Denning: We are entering an era with a rapidly growing need for leadership. This is caused by the convergence of irresistible socioeconomic forces. Accelerating economic and social change in the global economy, the consequent imperative for ever faster innovation, the emergence of global networks of partners, the rapidly growing role of intangibles, which can’t be controlled like physical goods, the increasing ownership of the means of production by knowledge workers, the escalating power of customers in the marketplace, and the burgeoning diversity in both the workplace and marketplace—all these forces imply a vastly more important role for transformational leadership in the future. The ability to get results in the face of these challenges will depend at least as much on leadership as on management. It will depend on a capacity to inspire enduring enthusiasm in people over whom we have no hierarchical control.
These irresistible forces will drive organizations to develop genuine leadership capability as a necessary competence. Leadership—the ability to connect people to meaningful goals without hierarchical power to compel compliance—will become a requirement for organizational survival. Management won’t disappear. We’ll continue to have much to thank management for. It has helped us achieve the wonders of the modern global economy—its stunning scientific accomplishments and the massive improvements in the physical standard of living of most people, at least in the developed countries—and it will go on doing so.
But the challenges now facing the human race won’t be solved by better management alone. Management will still be needed, but it will be less pivotal. In fact, it will be mostly taken for granted. Our capacity to manage will give us the technical means to solve our most intractable problems. What is needed now is the will to solve them. So goals, ends, purposes—what we are trying to accomplish—move to center stage. In the world of management, the goals are largely given. Management is about finding the quickest, cheapest, and best way to reach those goals. The language of management is naturally abstract. Human goals are naturally absent from its discourse. Once the emphasis shifts toward goals, ends, and purposes, then it is natural for the language to shift from abstractions to narratives, which have goals built into them.
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