Leadership and Fiction

It’s all made up!

~Ben Zander, Conductor, Boston Philharmonic Orchestra

Stories are about the author

What we often call history is really stories. We can find out when Fort Sumpter was fired on (1861) and when Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia to Grant (1865). On the other hand, ask people what the Civil War meant and you’ll get a range of opinions: stories. When we reminisce, we tell stories. And when we think of who we are and what we do, we tell stories as well. Though stories are wonderful and can be illuminating, let’s never forget that they’re fiction.

“The Civil War was all about slavery” and “The Civil War was all about states’ rights” are two different stories. While these two stories tell a little bit about history, they tell us a great deal about the people who tell them. Our stories identify and shape us.

Leadership in organizations shows up in two kinds of stories. We try to coalesce what we do as well as how and why we do our work through stories of. “Our #1 goal is a satisfied customer!” is an example. We understand who we are by stories we create about us and others: “I’m a team player, but Harriett seems to live in her own world.”

On one hand, stories are always fiction (otherwise, we’d all agree on everything). At the same time, they reveal more about the author than about the subject: stories not only reflect our truth, they shape it.

The Story Of

Mission statements, vision statements, and such are attempts to codify stories of our ideal selves in what we do and how we connect at work. The soaring eagle with a poetic caption is a pre-manufactured story of, a snapshot (literally) as likely to contribute to cynicism as to esprit de corps because it’s imposed, not generated. The story of thrives when it’s communal, rather than word-crafted as if it’s to be inscribed on a plaque or a monument, or a tombstone. In truth, the reality of our work community evolves: our story of is never static. And it’s a special kind of fiction in that it pulls us toward an ideal, like a fable or a parable.

As we lead (and that’s not a function of position, but of perspective), we can examine and reframe the story of what we do. Moreover, we can encourage others to co-author, to share the generation of who we are and why we move forward, not just of what we make. Revisit that story, candidly, from time to time, and seek to adjust the story and our actions toward congruence.

The story about

We also write another kind of story every day. That’s the story about ourselves and each other. As long as we remember that the story about is fiction, we’re on the right track. We judge ourselves as greater or worse than others see us. Always. A friend of mine suggests envisioning three circles. One represents how we see ourselves, the second how others see us, and the third who we really are. The closer together we can move those circles, by the stories we use for guidance, the better we can lead. And we move those circles by listening to feedback and by questioning our own assumptions: stories from without and stories from within.

Finally, there’s the story we write about others. It’s taken me a long time to learn that the story I write about others is about me: “In the absence of data, we make it up.” We write stories about other people as if the stories are true of them, but the metaphorical pen (or keyboard) that writes that story is powered by the fingers of our bias.

Stories are alive, not statements but dialogues. We humans have been asking What are we here for? since we gained (or were cursed with) self-consciousness. That same need for meaning applies to the huge block of our lives we invest in our livelihoods. Let’s get in the habit of revisiting the story of, and let’s be skeptical of the story about.


Mac Bogert
Mac Bogert
I fell in love with learning, language, and leadership through the intervention of two professors—I had actually achieved a negative GPA—who kicked my butt for drifting through my first couple of semesters at Washington and Lee University. After graduate school at U. Va., I started teaching English at a large high school in northern Virginia. A terrific principal lit my fire, a terrible one extinguished it. I left after five years (the national average, as it turns out, maybe the only time I did something normal) and started an original folk/blues/rock band. That went well for a time until the record company sponsoring us folded. I toured for some years as an acoustic blues musician, primarily as an opening act for bands like the Muddy Waters Band, Doc, and Merle Watson and such remarkable talent. As that market dried up (disco), I earned my Coast Guard Masters License and worked for the next decade as a charter and delivery captain and sailing instructor. At the same time, I was working part-time as an actor and voice-over artist, selling inflatable boats and encyclopedias, and working as a puppeteer. Itchy feet, I suppose. I came back into the system in 1987 as a teacher specialist in health and drug education in my county school system, also part-time as Education Coordinator (and faculty member) for Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts. I ‘departed’ both jobs in 1994 (therein lie more stories than 350 words could hold) and started my own business. AzaLearning is the career I’d been dodging for decades. I serve 200 clients around the country, helping with all kinds of coaching, planning, transforming conflict, creative problem-solving, communication, and mediation (I also trained and worked as a community mediator somewhere during sailing and teaching): learning, language, and leadership. In 2016 I published Learning Chaos: How Disorder Can Save Education and actively contribute to a couple of online education magazines as well as publish a newsletter, a blog, and the learning chaos podcast.

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    • Mac—

      By the time early existential reflections were surfacing in Western Europe, the term “transmogrify” had been in use for ~100 years; so your etymology may be sketchy but could also be typical of that moment in cultural creation: belittle fearful matters until they seem funny as well as strange. By the end of the 19th century, S. Freud would pick up on that complex of humor and magical strangeness, calling it “unkentlich.” Brothers Grimm had concretized such a sense in their moral fairy tales.

    • You’re always welcome, Mac. The etymology is curious, the semiology is mysterious, the philology is culturally semi-phobic. “Fear and Trembling” before various existential altars do underscore the deeply seated sense of falling short one experiences when framing ultimate cognitive breakouts for both readers and inksters.

  1. Story OF vs Story ABOUT. This is an interesting nuance, and like many aspects of our lives, I think bears some quality reflection time noodling on just what those stories are, and WHY they are those things…. and how that understanding sits with us in the dark, quiet hours when nobody’s looking. Great words, my friend. Thank you for sharing them.

  2. Mac, this was absolutely terrific. What a powerful reminder, that our stories are fiction… That we fill in the blanks…

    This: “…we can encourage others to co-author, to share the generation of who we are and why we move forward, not just of what we make.” From a leadership perspective, I can’t think of a greater way to engage than including others in a co-created narrative that tells the story of who we are, collectively, through our actions. Beautiful work!

  3. Good morning, young man.
    The portrait you paint of listening (as a metaphor too) and meaning is mostly universal. The dislocation of the pandemic is not just about content, it’s more about amplitude and frequency of delivery.
    Transmogrify is one of those great words whose origin is sketchy, though it may come from ‘maugre’ and connect to “evil eye.” I wear an evil eye ear ring, So I may have transmogrified my lobe.
    Be well, and thanks for the insight.

  4. Mac – Ben Zander and then wife Roz are two authors I wish I had read in my master’s program: The Art of Teaching History. I was young and impressionable, and so “historiography” was a delicious idea. But when I entered my classroom as a newly minted teacher and tried to explain historical perspective, I fell flat. I had only been taught that there were different versions of history – stories – not how or why to teach them to “Why do we have to learn this stuff anyway?” 11th graders. We also had an entire syllabus to get through. (Don’t get me started.) Only later did I realize that the point was not just about what happened, but about who said what happened and why – and when they were detailing the. story. Historians are master potters. Both use clay and dyes, but one vase mug can look vastly different than another. They are master sculptors who see an historical interpretation in stone and chip away at it until it’s revealed for all to see. But it’s their hammer and chisel doing the work.

    Great, thought-provoking post, Mac.

    • Hi, Jeff.
      I was talking with Dennis yesterday and we spent a bit of energy on education and learning; I suspect the three of us will talk before long.
      The pottery metaphor is terrific. I was a history major, then English. I never taught history, and I found the struggle of following my students to their need and following the syllabus wearing. These days, I provide no objectives in any of my sessions. I ask the participants to guide us. At first they’re a little confused and then the lights begin to shine and we’re off to the races. They need a hand in the design as well as in the outcomes (I’m sorely tempted to drive the pottery metaphor into the ground, but I’m resisting).
      Let’s get you on back2different, please, to talk about the future of teaching and learning. Good
      Be well.

  5. Oh Mac, you sent me on a search… I wrote a piece last year titled “The Motive That is Real”

    I grabbed an excerpt that might speak for it…

    “From those of yesterday
    Tomorrow’s students quote
    It’s not in what we say
    But more so how they wrote

    Words on paper speak
    And spoken they reveal
    It’s often we do seek
    The motive that is real!”

    I am always thinking about the words being written and how they are manipulated by the writer…
    Just had to share as your article resonated with me and affirmed to me that there is a piece of us as the writer or as in history scribed and dictated…whatever the case… it is something to learn from the other side of the paper… ( like Alice in the looking glass)

    Thank you for this article to jump into. Have a great night!

    • Very good to hear from you, Paula.
      Every breath is, at its most fundamental, an act of creation, especially when the exhale includes words. And writing gives us even more of a space and more of a task to gather and release meaning.
      Though teaching has often brought frustration, the reward of seeing the others’ ‘light bulbs’ go off is the best.
      Be well,

  6. Fictitious-factitious, convergent-divergent, synchronous/coincidental-asynchronous/incidental: reflective-refractive. The contiuity-flow of human (re)cognition (the flow of durable data known as “knowledge”) is all of those things.

    Yet these traditional/conventional matters verge on accelerating well beyond tracking (either analog or digital) with the proven onset and sooner-than-later access to so-called “quantum entanglement.” Location and temporality (also known as “setting”) in stories whatever the public format or performance become non-visualizable by definition yet remain decisive for “the willing suspension of disbelief” and the social engagement of characters whose actualities create value (also known as worldview or characterization).

    The familiar existential stage/phasing/spectrum of the past 150-200 years borders on transmogrifying..