Posted on August 17, 2019

How to Harness The Power of Story for Systemic Change

Stories are powerful. They move us with emotion at the theater, they draw us into a good book, and, even more importantly, the form the foundation for much of our lives. We tell stories to each other all the time, and we also constantly tell stories to ourselves.

Our societies unify under shared sets of stories, and the story that we tell about ourselves is the cornerstone of our identity. Religion is built on stories and political movements spawn out of stories. Of course, our organizations also rely on stories. We can harness this narrative power to create lasting, systemic change.

Like Water for Fish

To get the full story about stories, I invited Ella Saltmarshe to speak at the Systemic Leadership Summit. Ms. Saltmarshe combines her work as a dramatist with a career in systemic change. She co-founded The Point People, an organization that works on systems change across sectors, and the Comms Lab, a systems change lab that focuses on the advertising industry.

Ms. Saltmarshe couldn’t say enough about how crucial stories are for living human systems. “Story is for humans like water is for fish,” she explained. “It is the thing that we swim in, it is the thing that is essential to us, but we cannot see it; it is invisible to us.” Stories bring us together, and at the same time they allow us to distinguish groups or even individuals from each other. Often, our purpose is tied to a story that we tell.

Because stories are so crucial to all systems, understanding and working on stories can have a massive effect on them. “Stories lock systems in place with our hearts and minds. They make systems feel eternal and immutable, and we can change those narratives. And by changing those narratives, we can unlock systems,” concludes Ms. Saltmarshe.

She explains that there are three primary purposes for stories: story as light, story as glue, and story as web. Understanding these will help us to rewrite the narrative and affect lasting change in our organizations.

Story as Light

You all know that the first step to a systemic approach is seeing the system. Well, Ms. Saltmarshe explains that stories have an incredible “illuminating capacity.” She continues, “The story enables us to see the cracks in the system, to see the outliers who are already creating change, and to build a narrative around that, but it adds momentum to that change, to the way it can shine a light on the future and on possible futures.”

Essentially, telling and digesting stories, both about our organizations as a whole and how individuals interact with the organization, helps us to see what’s actually going on in the system. We can see “the destructive parts of the system, the fault lines, the cracks, the parts of a system that aren’t working,” says Ms. Saltmarshe, by using the captivating powers of narrative.

Story as Glue

The next purpose of storytelling is “all about this cohering power story.” Since stories are so effective at communicating empathy, they help us to bridge the gap and bring us together. Ms. Saltmarshe describes one application that we can use in our organization: “the work of systems change often involves bringing together groups of people who occupy very different and perhaps conflicting places in the system to rethink how systems operate,” she explains. “And, in order for them to do that, they have to be able to build bridges with each other. Story is a tool to help do that.”

We should invite people to share their own personal stories with each other. Let them talk about how they came to become involved in the organization, what in means to them, and how they see themselves fitting in. Furthermore, we want to tie all this together into one overarching story of the organization itself. The organization’s purpose is the story that it tells the world, and, by being a part of that, we can bring together diverse people within it.

Story as Web

The final purpose of narrative is to create a web. This, says Ms. Saltmarshe, is “all about this nest of narratives that we live in… this work of story as web is looking at how do we firstly become aware of the narrative we’re living by and then how do we reauthorize.”

Ultimately, the connections that we form with each other, all our relationships, are dictated by this complex web of stories. Besides that, the way that we think about our own problems and issues are likewise determined by the stories that we tell about them. The best way to rewrite the script, if you will, is to focus on the story itself. This helps us to “unlock the agency in our lives,” concludes Ms. Saltmarshe. “Narrative is key.”


Now, all of this is much easier said than done. We can talk about rewriting stories and getting rid of old stories, but, according to Ms. Saltmarshe, “in practice the work is messy and tough because stories are like us. These old stories are deep within us, and letting go of them is really hard… this doesn’t happen overnight.” Rewriting our most crucial stories, the ones that determine our identity and our purpose, may take a lot of time and effort, but the outcome is definitely worth it.


  • What do you think about the amazing powers of storytelling? How do you use narrative in your own leadership or systemic practice? If you’re ready to learn more about how you can take control of your organization’s story, if you want help implementing these systemic principles in your work, or if you have any questions on the subject, then please reach out to me at

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