One of the themes of my coaching of leaders and in my seminars for the past 15 years has been the importance of telling stories of collective identity. These are the “stories of us” that define our group, by explaining who we are, what we stand for, how we see the future, and what we can accomplish together.
A shared narrative can be a powerful force that clarifies a group’s culture, inspiring members by providing a sense of meaning and direction. Beyond inspiration, though, these stories of who we are and where we are going have the most impact when they become veritable stories of co-creation. In my best client experiences, we have been successful at growing the organization’s stories of identity through a synergistic interaction between leaders and followers.
How can this type of synergy happen? In fact, it can be a quite straightforward phenomenon: A leader’s story enters the mind of others, who begin processing the story, themselves—adding, adapting and reformatting it with their own ideas and interpretations. As followers internalize the story, and they often start to reach inside themselves and construct echoing stories, which we sometimes call “mirror stories”. The leader who began the process is energized by the activity of the others, and the narrative grows, both in her mind and in her discourse. Over time, this interactive dynamic causes the group’s stories to become increasingly vibrant, inclusive and meaningful.
From the outset, Pope Francis’ stories have sought to include the entire world. In the past months, I have written on several occasions about the discourse of Pope Francis, and in particular about his use of his personal stories. And, I cannot help but feel that his narrative is becoming a shared one for a majority of Catholics, and for many non-Catholics as well.
Of course, it is not possible for me to judge, and it is pointless to speculate here, on the numbers of individual followers of Pope Francis who may be creating or recreating portions of their personal narratives. However, in the reactions of numerous Catholics I know personally, or whose thoughts I have read in the press and on blogs, it seems apparent that many who had felt disillusioned with their church are experiencing a fresh awakening. Or, at the very least, they have been stimulated to actively rethink their views.
Why are so many people identifying with the pope’s stories of who we are and where we can go together? First of all, it is a simpler story than those of the recent past, an uncomplicated vision of hope and peace. In my own practice, I have often seen the beneficial effect of working with clients on story simplification. In the case of Pope Francis, it seems that his straightforward and unassuming manner of storytelling is having a great impact.
Second, Francis’ view of the church’s future is a kinder, less punitive one. After decades of experiencing a church that seemed to teach by spreading fear and emphasizing limitations and punishment, it is refreshing for many to hear a pope speak of possibilities rather than constraints, and of mercy for all.
Third, Pope Francis’ story of collective identity resonates because it is provides a fresh sense of meaning. It appears that his goal is to engage Catholics, even all of humanity, in a remarkable and ambitious project: confronting the real needs of people in need. In a sense, he is trying to bring Catholicism back to its pastoral roots. As he describes, “I prefer a church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security.”
Fourth, this is truly a remarkable story of openness, generosity and tolerance. In his refreshingly positive and spiritual journey, the pope seems to have a deep desire to bring everyone along, including homosexuals, nonbelievers, sinners, and vast numbers of those who must have felt shut out in the past. Rather than seeking to proselytize and convert, Francis proposes a dialog that includes other faiths, the poor and the weak, the excluded.
As we will see next time, even atheists are welcome to join in the discussion.