Applying a Relational Approach in the Trump Administration?

It’s been one of those happy days when a journal article promising to be practical actually is, and might even be applicable to a paper I’m trying to finish. The article is about how local government-level senior managers in the United Kingdom use storytelling and narratives to get their work done and even improve their organizations. (You can find a blurb here, and the citation is: Orr, K. and Bennett, M. (2016), Relational Leadership, Storytelling, and Narratives: Practices of Local Government Chief Executives. Public Administration Review. doi:10.1111/puar.12680.) It is kind of a stretch to apply it to my paper, which is about public diplomacy at the subnational and national levels in the U.S., but they share the challenge in good governance to being an empathic, pragmatic, i.e., relational, leader. Letting my imagination wander a bit, maybe through the back door of federal level administrators, the following insights on managing relations with elected and appointed officials could be informative. See for yourself in this excerpt from pages 9-10 if you agree that the authors certainly offer vivid storytelling tactics:

"Managing Political Relations with Council Leaders

A second vivid story about relations with politicians—one that he uses in staff development settings—was provided by another chief executive. He recounts the tale in order to demonstrate the subtle art of leadership influence.

Story 8: Homer
A senior director and I wrote a book for a strategic planning series back in the day. We sent it to the publishers in February… In May the Conservatives won a majority, and this guy Homer, became deputy leader of the council and although he had very little formal education, he was a very astute guy. Harry and I decided we would try and get him interested in strategic matters because we knew that the leader was a “paper clip counter,” there was no way that the leader was going to have any understanding of anything strategic so we thought we’d work on the Deputy. So we started feeding Homer ideas, involving him in discussions and he was a very quick learner. In July our book was published and we gave him a complimentary copy and he came back to us a few days later. He said he was “very pleased to see that we’d picked up his ideas!” We d sent it to the publishers in February, long before he was on he scene, but he genuinely believed that they were his ideas and that we ’ d used them in our book! I tell that as a story about how although visible leadership is very important, so is invisible leadership. Sometimes people will only be  led if they think it was their idea in the first place. The chief executive is developing the strategic awareness of the political leader through talk and reading. The story suggests how ideas emerge within a relational network and are coproduced by actors. At first glance, Homer takes the chief executive ’ s ideas and claims them as his own. A relational lens suggests that in the process of everyday conversations (“setting to work on Homer”), the
authorship and ownership of ideas become jointly assumed. Over time, this episode became the basis of an instructional story that the chief executive shares to illustrate the complexity of that officer– member relationship to aid others’ learning. This relationship between elected politicians and administrators is regarded as a fundamental question in the study and practice of public administration (Georgiou 2014 ; Svara 2006 ; Wilson 1887 ; Zhang and Feiock 2010 ). Another chief executive described her role as a “buffer” between officers and members and said an important part of her job is to translate one part of the organization to the other and to enable communication between officers and politicians….

“The account suggests how leadership is collective and emergent within the to-ing and froing of organizational life. Political narratives are thus coproduced by a series of actors and networks in relation with each other.”

The storyteller’s scheme may sound manipulative, but haven’t many of us experienced failure when we haven’t taken the time to understand a politician’s priorities and behavior – to relate to her? I reckon that dialogue, public recognition of “her” good ideas, are “invisible leadership” rather than manipulation.  

P.S. For you organization and governance theory geeks, the authors engage Karl Weick’s organizational sensemaking approach, about which I have been obsessing for a decade. Hats off also to their engagement with Mark Bevir’s work on governance and storytelling, which underscore the increasing relevance of informality in public administration and all of the functions of government.