The Four Great Stories
In 1891, Winston Churchill told his friend Murland Evans:
“I can see vast changes coming over a now peaceful world; great upheavals, terrible struggles; wars such as one cannot imagine. This country will be subjected somehow, to a tremendous invasion...in the high position I shall occupy, it will fall to me to save the Capital and with it, the Empire”
He was just 17 years old. An accident that Churchill emerged as one of the greatest leaders of the 20th Century?
About a century later, Czech author Milan Kundera compared his life’s achievements to those of his friend and fellow writer Vaclav Havel. Life, so far as Kundera was concerned, was shapeless and unpredictable, having no structure or meaning to explain origin or destination. His friend Havel, on the other hand, seemed to be steered by a “meta-narrative”, a coherent story that described how the Universe, nature, and his own life were guided by a definite intention and purpose.
Though both were remarkable men, only Havel had truly walked with destiny. For more than two decades, he dissented tirelessly against communism, finally emerging as his country’s first President in 1989 following the fall of the Berlin Wall. After Havel left office in 1992, he would receive state honours and awards from some 28 countries. In life and in death, Havel is remembered as one of the most courageous moral voices of our time.
Meta narratives pack a serious punch. In his book “Maps of Meaning” Canadian Psychologist Jordan Peterson stated that all notable lives adhered to a discernible narrative structure or “a low-resolution grand narrative”. These “meta-narratives” were like great rivers of meaning that people could either choose or refuse to step into.
Robert Reich: Pic Courtesy of JSTOR
Meta narratives are not restricted to the individual: they can fuel an entire culture. American Political commentator Robert Reich was the first to identify “The Four Essential Stories (meta-narratives) of American Life”. Two play to hopes and two to fears. Narrate from within any one of these four “mental boxes” and you will rhyme with the stories Americans have been telling since their founding
The Triumphant Individual
This is the rags to riches meta-narrative, the story about the little guy who works hard, takes risks and who eventually rises to the top. Abraham Lincoln is a prime example. As is Rocky Balboa. As is Chris Gardner in “The Pursuit of Happiness”. The moral of the story is that with enough effort and courage, anyone can make it in the United States.
The Benevolent Community
This is the story of neighbors and friends coming together for the common good. It’s what inspired Martin Luther King Jr’s “I have a dream” speech and the town hall meetings of the early colonies. The moral of the story is that if we come together we can be more than the sum of our parts
The Mob and the Gates
This is the “City on a Hill” surrounded by outer darkness and assailed by hostile forces. It began with the Indians and moved on to the English and the Mexicans. In the 1950s it was the communists, in the 60s it was the Cubans and the Vietnamese. In the 80s it was the drug cartels and after 911...it was terrorists. If the movie “Independence Day” is to be believed, the threat may even come from outer space. Moral of the story: maintain vigilance or we will be overrun.
The Rot at the Top.
This is the story about corrupt and powerful elites, about irresponsibility and financial profligacy in high places. Greedy foreign kings, land barons, bankers, politicians and media moguls. This was the narrative of Erin Brokovich and The Shawshank Redemption. Moral of the story: think twice about your dealings with power.
As a testament to the power of these 4 meta-narratives consider how they shape US Politics. In 1985, Ronald Reagan used the "Mob at the Gates" narrative as a pretext for a $2.5bn budget to (quite literally) go to war against the drug cartels. Two presidents later, Bill Clinton tackled the same problem from a completely different narrative framework. From 1992 onwards, "The Benevolent Community" aspired to see children raised right, given good role models and that addicts be, treated with compassion and dignity. Consider America in the wake of George Floyd's murder. "The Rot at the Top" narrative became a pretext to defund the police; "The Benevolent Community" to replace them with community policing programs.
I believe that what’s true of America could also be true of the workplace. That there are a finite set of meta-narratives and that if businesses - like Robert Reich - could only discern and find the words to tell them...then they would lead and execute with far greater power, purpose and effectiveness. I’ll admit it’s just a hunch but over the next few posts, I hope successfully to share my hypothesis...