I sat in my first creative writing class in a chilly pub basement in Durham in 1993. I expected to listen to the teacher for the first few weeks. Maybe I would be asked to critique the work of a published writer, but surely I wouldn’t be expected to write.
I was writing within fifteen minutes. And fifteen after that I was reading my drivel to the group. The teacher tried to be constructive.
I decided to take a break from creative writing after that ‒ until 2003. I had recently moved to the US with GSK and I wanted to meet people outside of work. I signed up for a one day creative writing workshop in a North Carolina college and braced myself for more humiliation. The first two pieces I wrote that day weren’t strong and I didn’t raise my hand. But the third piece was okay. It was a true childhood story about the time when three of us climbed up a tree, but only two climbed down. It had a beginning a middle and an end, and in that order. Unbeknownst to me, the lady sitting to my left read my piece over my shoulder. Before I knew what was happening, she had volunteered me. The group seemed to like it.
As I was leaving the workshop, the teacher grabbed my arm. ‘You have to keep writing,’ she said. ‘You have a voice. We can teach writing, but we can’t teach voice.’ I’m sure I’ve felt better than that since, but not often. I remember driving home ‒ possibly on the wrong side of the road ‒ elated and determined to write.
I’ve sat in a lot of creative writing classes since then. The voice that the workshop leader spoke of hasn’t always been easy to find. But I’ve learned a lot, and some of it is very relevant to the world of business.
Leadership stories are different. They are much shorter (usually significantly less than 1% of the length of a novel). They don’t contain so much sensory language ‒ we don’t need to know about the quality of the light or the aroma. They are usually heard rather than read. But leadership stories and the stories we read in books do share a common ancestor and we can learn from them.
One of the first things they tell you in creative writing class is ‘Show don’t tell’. There is a famous quote from Chekov, which shows (rather than tells) what this means:
“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”
They also say, ‘Dramatise it.’ ‘Write scenes not paragraphs,’ is another one. It all amounts to the same thing. The goal, you see, is to make the reader see and feel what is happening, rather than think about the words. We believe what we see and feel.
And I believe leader’s should show more and tell less too. For example, leaders can’t establish organisational integrity by telling their people that it is now a corporate value. What is integrity anyway? Does integrity mean the same thing to everyone? Leaders would do far better to show people real life examples of integrity, and the only way to do that is by telling a story or two.
The same goes for trust. Leaders can’t tell people to trust them. But if they tell them stories which demonstrate their humanity, they will be making a good start.