With a Bedrock Focus on Values, Gold College Students Learn to Use Stories to Lead

With a Bedrock Focus on Values, Gold College Students Learn to Use Stories to Lead

By Victor Shewchuk (University of Alberta Senior Advisor for Organizational Learning and Effectiveness) and Christine Cavanaugh-Simmons (President, CCS Consulting Inc.)


Gold College, a leadership program at the University of Alberta, was launched in 2011 as a means of helping empower academic staff at the school. Unique for its length and breadth, the Gold College program is transforming the university by providing academics with the tools they need to navigate the reality of budget cuts, decreased staffing, and demographic and technological change. In the third piece in our four-part series, we examine the importance of understanding the values that drive us and how that knowledge can help us use stories to lead. Next time: how the program uses open-ended, creative dialogue among its students, allowing them to solve problems collectively and form a sense of community.

As Gold College begins each September, participants take the Hall-Tonna Inventory of Values. Then they receive a two-hour private debriefing about what their results mean and how the results relate to their leadership role at the University of Alberta. They learn what drives them, and they learn that other people may be driven by altogether different forces and complementary values.

This process is an eye-opener for many participants because values may be as much as 90 percent unconscious. According to research, many people and organizations can identify only around half a dozen of the driving forces in their lives. Gold College students who take the Hall-Tonna can see, in black-and-white, perhaps for the first time in their lives, the impact on their lives of 125 values—detailed, professionally analyzed, chock-full of meaning. A year or two later, when they’re leading a team and thinking about a problem in a particular way, they’re less likely to be upset when a teammate analyzes the problem in an entirely different way, a way that’s based on that person’s values. Authentic leaders need to be responsive to the values of their audience, the social context they’re speaking into. They need to steer clear of the old-fashioned leadership style that implies, “My view is the correct view and I am going to impose it on you.”

The Hall-Tonna inventory helps people see their lives in deeper, richer ways. It expands their vocabulary for describing their lives—they get better at telling their stories. And therein resides another core goal of Gold College: teaching people to use stories to lead, i.e., leading by using the narrative process.

Narrative is a good way to make sense of the world. Stories, writes Dr. Lewis Mehl-Madrona, hold the “complexity of the world in a way we could never articulate otherwise.” Stories define our meaning, purpose, goals, values— "everything that makes life worthwhile.” Among the ways narrative can be communicated: oral and written stories, videos, lunchroom gossip, multimedia presentations, even trophy cases from the year the college team won the hockey championship.

(Leading with narrative has roots in narrative therapy, which has become a remarkably interesting field since publication in 1990 of the book “Narrative Means to Therapeutic Ends” by Michael White and David Epston.)

Stories define our meaning, purpose, goals, values—“everything that makes life worth while.”

Leading with narrative occurs in three realms, according to Gold College: (1) Who Am I? (2) Who Are We? and (3) Where Are We Going? These three areas are explicated in a Gold College textbook titled Three Stories Leaders Tell: The WHAT and WAY of Using Stories to Lead by Christine Cavanaugh-Simmons, published in 2013. (Cavanaugh-Simmons is co-author of this article.)

The “Who Am I?” story, writes Cavanaugh-Simmons, is the story a leader tells to an organization or team about his/her life. It focuses on values, beliefs, motives, influences. It’s candid about failures and cheerful about successes. It answers the question, “Why do I feel called upon to lead?” Cavanaugh-Simmons writes, “People follow leaders because they believe they know who they are, what they stand for, what is behind the decisions they make.” A classic “Who Am I” statement is a commencement speech given by Steve Jobs of Apple at Stanford University in 2005.

The second realm, the “Who Are We?” story, is co-authored by the leader and members of the organization or team. The leader’s job is to hear, collect, shape, and blend organizational stories into “a message that everyone can internalize and successfully act upon,” writes Cavanaugh-Simmons. The resulting “Who Are We?” story reminds an organization or team of what they stand for, what they’ve accomplished in the past, obstacles they’ve faced—for instance, how the organization pulled together to meet an impossible goal. An example of the latter, from Hollywood, is the film “Gung Ho” starring Michael Keaton (1986), which vividly depicts a factory team trying to make 15,000 cars in a month, the kind of all-out quest that can shape a company’s culture for many years.

The “Where Are We Going?” story, also known as the “Strategic Narrative,” posits an imagined future for an organization or team. It summarizes the choices that team members need to make to get to that future, and it vividly describes what “there” looks and feels like. One of the keys to a well-crafted strategic narrative, writes Cavanaugh-Simmons, is “clear guidance on how to move toward the desired goal or vision”—instruction on the steps to be taken in ways that seem possible. Nancy Duarte, author and presentation guru, offers a useful guiding philosophy here: “The future isn’t a place you will go to, it’s a place you will invent.” President John F. Kennedy and his team understood this well when they came up with the phrase “New Frontier” to summarize in two words his administration’s vision. Kennedy went on to lay out, in speeches and press conferences, the “how” of the vision.

Next: How Gold College allows open-ended dialogue among participants, empowering them to solve problems together and build a community.

The Book


Help leaders unlock the power of stories to inspire, engage and guide teams and entire organizations

Buy the Book

My Story is My Path

Resources for all those called to leadership who understand the power of words and stories to shape their futures from one of the nation’s preeminent narrative coaches, Christine Cavanaugh-Simmons of CCS Consulting Inc.

Our Movement