From Betty Sue Flowers

Human beings are storytelling animals. We are embedded in stories. We dream in stories. There’s something biological about this.

When we tell stories of who we are and what we might become as individuals or as institutions, it’s important we speak as truthfully as we can about the facts. The narrative is entirely up to us. This is a crucial distinction that is often missed.

This is not Doctor Pangloss teaching the best of all possible worlds. Telling yourself your rich, your rich, over and over again can be a survival mechanism. The voice inside says “no your not.” That inside voice is truer.

In creating the story, make a clear distinction between facts and narrative structure. Be true to the facts. What you say about what that means is the narrative that you can create.

What is the story you’re telling about reality? What is the story you’re telling about who you are? About what is possible?

There’s always a story going on. What is the story you are telling?


Find a partner.

Partner A tells story of your life to Partner B. (:05)
Then you’ll switch, Partner B tells the story to Partner A. (:05)

I’ll stop you in the middle of your story.

Then I’ll give you two more plots. We’ll do this three times.

Use real facts. This isn’t Oprah or true confession. It’s about using real fact and using a plot that I give you.

Pay close attention to how you feel in each plot.

Pay close attention to what facts from your life seem usable for each plot.

For the listener: the tendency is to say “oh yeah, this happened to me” and start talking. Instead, keep your focus on the storyteller. Just nod and look the person in the eye.

What questions do you have, anyone?

First plot: a hero’s story

The hero overcomes great adversity to win. Often there is a time in the story when the hero is about to give up. Hero stories can come from a context of competition — leaders who welcome challenges — challenges that bring forth opportunities.

Pay attention to your mood as you tell your story. How does your body feel?

Now, for the next five minutes, tell the story of your life as a hero story.

Now it’s time to switch roles. For the next five minutes, your partner tells the life-story as a hero story.

Second narrative: a victim story

Tell the story of your life as a victim story.

Victim stories sell a lot of products; you find victim stories in advertising.

A lot of change efforts are attempted on the back of a victim story. “I am what I am because of what they’ve done to me.” (boss, parents, society)

Now, for the next five minutes, tell the story of your life as a victim story.

Now it’s time to switch roles. For the next five minutes, your partner tells the life-story as a victim story.

Third narrative: as a learner

The third narrative is different in time than the other two narratives. Tell the story of your life as if there were a purpose to life, as if the purpose was to learn. The things that were good or bad are irrelevant. The question is “What did life teach you?”

It’s as if this is the planet for slow learners — that’s why there’s so much suffering on this planet. We were born here because we’re so slow to learn.

Tell your story as if there were a purpose to life, as if that purpose was to learn.

Now it’s time to switch roles. For the next five minutes, your partner tells the life-story as a learner.


What did you notice?

Who felt good when telling the hero story? the victim story? the learner story?

What is the story that’s creating that feeling?

Pay attention to your mood. Moods are the after-effect of the story and you can often not be aware of your mood as you’re telling the story.

What is your story now? What is the future you are creating?


To have a connection to your authentic self, to your heart, you have to clear out the stories first — especially the unconscious stories.

Stories that begin “This can’t happen until…, “Can’t happen because of these people…,” “I’m not good enough…” stop us from seeing what is possible and prevent us from creating what our heart yearns for.

When you understand the stories you tell about yourself, you are then able to tell a new story about who you are and about what is possible in your life.

The first two myths are strong — we derive strength from being the hero, or moving the responsibility of our lives onto others as in the victim story.

The plot of the learner story is love. The learner story explores the love of your own individuality. Life is showing you how to bring out that gift that you have to give.

The purpose of life is a deeply subversive plot. One of the hardest meditations to do is to just sit and feel beloved. That is what learning is about.

Context for leadership

Part of the job of leadership is not to tell a story that you push down on people because they’ll resist. Part of leading is to find out what is the story that is emerging. If a common story can emerge, there’s real power in that. All leaders are storytellers and more importantly, all leaders are story-listeners.

About the author

Betty Sue Flowers is the former director of the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum and an Emeritus Professor of English at the University of Texas at Austin. With Peter Senge, C. Otto Scharmer, and Joseph Jaworski, she co-authored the book Presence: An exploration of profound change in people, organizations and society. This award-winning teacher of English and religion, expert in mythology, confidante of PBS journalist Bill Moyers, consultant to NASA and corporations around the world and author of three poetry volumes now lives in New York City.