Harvard MLD356M Public Narrative – Conflict, Continuity, Change


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Course description

This module builds on its prerequisite MLD355M, “Public Narrative: Self, Us, Now.” In this module we go deeper. We explore how we can use public narrative to acquire agency in the face of critical leadership challenges: those of loss, domination, difference, and change. Most of us have experienced these leadership challenges in our families, work lives, or communities. We can learn to draw on the narrative content of this experiences to enable ourselves to deal with them in public life. We can respond to domination, for example, with a narrative of resistance or of compliance; to difference with narratives of inclusion or exclusion; to loss with narratives of redemption or contamination; and to change with narratives of rejection, conservation, reform or revolution. The question is how we can respond and enable others to respond with “agency” by accessing hope over fear, empathy over alienation, and self-worth over self-doubt. Prerequisite: MLD355M.


Marshall Ganz, Fall 2015.


http://www.hks.harvard.edu/degrees/teaching-courses/course-listing/mld-356m and http://www.hks.harvard.edu/syllabus/MLD-356M.pdf, accessed 26 December 2015.

Link to uploaded syllabus on the Atlas


Additional material from the syllabus

This module builds on its prerequisite MLD355, Public Narrative: Self, Us, Now. In MLD355 you began learning the practice of public narrative: a way to exercise leadership by translating values into an emotional capacity for agentic action in response to challenge.

The practice of public narrative may be especially useful in responding strategically to moments of particularly challenging leadership: power inequality, difference, loss or change. Yet it is in just such moments that we are most likely to find ourselves in the midst of as many different stories as there are actors involved– each story rooted in a different self, building on a different us, urging action on a different now. In this module:

  • First, you will learn to diagnose leadership challenges drawn from your own experience in terms of public narrative: what was the nature of the challenge, why was it a leadership challenge, and what public narratives were in play – informed by background reading, film clips, and critical reflection.
  • Second, you will learn to analyze the narrative responses to the challenge: what was the strategic intent of the response, how did stories of self, us, and now play out, and how effective were they in – enabling the agency of the participants.
  • Third, you will draw public narrative lessons from this analysis that you could put to work in your own practice?

After two introductory classes we focus on one of four key leadership challenges each week: power inequality, loss, difference, and change. You will diagnose the leadership challenge, analyze the public narrative response, and draw lessons for practice. After the first week of class, when we meet together twice, we meet together on Tuesday and in sections on Thursday.

Each Thursday, by 12:00 PM, you will submit a two-page reflection paper in which you describe a case drawn from your own experience of that week’s leadership challenge, analyzing the narrative response, and drawing lessons from it.

  • What exactly was the nature of the narrative leadership challenge? Who were the key actors? What different stories were in play? How does it illustrate this week’s focus?
  • What was the public narrative response to that challenge? Who responded? What was their intent? What “self” did they draw on? What “now” did they call for? How did they bring a sense of “us” alive? Around what values? Did they strengthen the agency of the participants?
  • What public narrative lessons did you learn by analyzing that challenge? What worked? What didn’t? What could those responsible have done differently? What might you do differently in the future?

Each week 3 or 4 students will also make an oral presentation of their case to the section as a focal point for discussion. When it is your turn, to prepare for your presentation, you must:

  • Meet with your TF during office hours that week prior to your presentation.
  • Submit your reflection paper to your TF by 5:00 PM on Wednesday, the day before section,
  • Share a one paragraph case summary with your section by 5:00 PM on Wednesday.

Your FINAL ASSIGNMENT is a five-page paper in which you choose a leadership challenge in which you were – or are – an actor, diagnose it, analyze it, and draw lessons from it. Using specific examples, consider how you could use narrative tools to address the challenge. Assess what you have learned in the course of the module about how you could use public narrative strategically.

Week-by-week topics and assigned reading

Week 1a: Understanding Multiple Nows

We often tell different stories about the same event, moment, or challenge, depending on variations in our stories of self, how we define our story of us, and the story of now we have mind. Stories also vary along with the values to which they give expression. Adichie points to the hazard of believing that a single story can capture the “whole truth.” Bruner and Amsterdam explain why this is so: we shape and are shaped by the world. Callahan shows how policy differences can grow out of different narratives rooted in different values. Westen spells out the values differences that drive partisan narratives. In the videos, two political leaders try to mobilize “agency” in the face of uncertainty based on different stories of self, story’s of us rooted in different values, and in “now’s” that hold very different meanings.

Chimamanda Adichie, “The Danger of the Single Story”, TED, 7/09 found at: http://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story.html [18 min.]

Jerome Bruner and Anthony Amsterdam, “Chapter 8, On the Dialectic of Culture”, Minding the Law, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000), (pp. 217-245). [29 pages]

Kathe Callahan, et al, “War Narratives: Framing Our Understanding of the War on Terror”, Public Administration Review, July/August, 2006, (pp. 554 – 568). [15 pages]

Drew Westen, “Chapter 7, Writing An Emotional Constitution”, The Political Brain: the Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation, (New York: Public Affairs, 2007), (pp. 145-169). [25 pages]

Week 1b: Understanding Multiple Nows

Conflict and collaboration are distinct, but essential, forms of social, political, and economic interaction. Although we often focus on the desirability of collaboration (except for market based competition), under what conditions is conflict not only unavoidable, but also desirable? And what is the role of narrative in managing constructive conflict? Coser specifies the value of social conflict. Eisenhardt, et al, show a way those conditions can be created. Marcus and McKee point to the emotional work required to sustain constructive conflict, a key role for public narrative. The video of Sen. Robert Kennedy delivering the news of Dr. M.L. King’s assassination to an African-American rally in 1968 offers a look at how self, us, and now can interact to strengthen agency at very challenging moment.

Lewis Coser, “Chapter 12, Conclusion”, The Functions of Social Conflict, (New York: Free Press, 1956). (pp 151-157). [7 pages]

Kathleen M. Eisenhardt, Jean L. Kahwajy, and L.J. Bourgeois III, “How Management Teams Can Have a Good Fight“, Harvard Business Review, July-August, 1997, (pp. 77-85). [9 pages]

George Marcus, “Chapter 7, The Dangers of Loathing”, (pp. 119-132), “Chapter 8, The Sentimental Citizen”, (pp. 133-148), The Sentimental Citizen, (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2002). [30 pages]


Robert McKee, “Chapter 14, The Principle of Antagonism”, Story, (New York: Harper Collins, 1997), (pp. 317-333). [17 pages]

Week 2: Power Inequality

This week we focus on public narrative responses to the leadership challenge of unequal power. Scott argues that at any moment of unequal power four narratives or “transcripts” are in play: subordinate narratives (hidden and public) dominant narratives (hidden and public). The leadership question is how one can strengthen the agency of the “us” for whom one is responsible when challenged in this way: always with a public story of now motivating resistance? What about a hidden story of resistance and public story of compliance? Does one ever tell a story of resistance from a dominant position – hidden or public? Cuoto shows how individual hidden resistance narratives can be a source of shared public resistance narratives. My paper shows how a public resistance narrative was articulated among California farm workers. North Country allows us to observe and evaluate the effectiveness of diverse leadership responses to the complex interplay of hidden and public narratives under conditions of gender and class based power inequality in Northern Minnesota mines.

James C. Scott, Chapter 1, “Behind the Official Story” (pp. 1-16), Chapter 2, “Domination, Acting and Fantasy” (pp. 17-44) in Domination and the Arts of Resistance (New Haven: Yale, 1990). [44 pages]

Richard A. Cuoto, “Narrative, Free Space, and Political Leadership in Social Movements”, The Journal of Politics, Vol.55. No.1 (February, 1993), (pp. 57-79). [23 pages]

Marshall Ganz, “The Power of Story in Social Movements”, American Sociological Association Annual Meeting, 2001, 13 pp. [10 pages]

Week 3: Difference

This week we focus on public narrative responses to the leadership challenge of difference. When confronted with the challenge of difference, is an inclusive narrative always the most effective leadership response? When might an exclusive narrative, a narrower “story of us”, be more effective? What if the difference is in the content of the narratives themselves? In this case, Stone and Winslade argue, developing a third story, different from either of the two in contention, may be a wiser path. Bozzoli shows a way different private narrative can be woven into a shared public narrative, contributing a healing process, integrating individual loss the solidarity of community. Mean Girls shows a way we can use almost any marker of difference to create exclusive stories of us. The Milk movie suggests when it can create more agency to exclude and when it may create more agency to include. And Sesame Street makes a strong case for the possibilities of inclusion.

Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen, “Chapter 8, Getting Started: Begin From the Third Story”, (pp. 147-162), Difficult Conversations, (New York: Penguin, 1999). [16 pages]

John Winslade and Gerald Monk, “Chapter 1, Narrative Mediation: What Is It?” (pp. 1-30), Narrative Mediation, (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2001). [30 pages]

Belinda Bozzoli, “Public Ritual and Private Transition: The Truth Commission in Alexandra Township, South Africa 1996”, African Studies, 57(2), 1998, (pp. 167-195). [29 pages]

Week 4: Loss

In our private lives we have all had to learn to deal with the challenge of loss at some point. McAdams argues that it makes a big difference how. Do we tell a story of loss as inevitable, what always happens to “us”, what he calls a “contamination” narrative? Or do we tell a story in which loss, as painful as it is, may be the cost of growth, learning, and change? What can we learn from our private experiences of loss that can prepare us for moments when we must exercise public leadership in response to loss? How can we tell an authentically “redemptive” public narrative as opposed to a “contaminating” one? How can we enable others to respond to loss in similar fashion? Polletta shows how some people have learned to turn a “victim” story into one of agency. Voss explains the role redemptive narrative can play in enabling organizational resilience in the face of loss – and what happens when it is missing. The Joy Luck Club shows how a redemptive narrative of loss can be passed across three generations, from mother to daughter, enabling greater agency. The video shows how Renata Teodoro, one of the leaders of the Dreamers, was able to tell a redemptive narrative following defeat in the Senate two years ago.

Dan P. McAdams and Philip J. Bowman, “Chapter 1: Narrating Life’s Turning Points: Redemption and Contamination,” Turns in the Road: Narrative Studies of Lives in Transition, (Washington D.C.: American Psychological Association, 2001), (pp. 3-34). [32 pages]

Francesca Polletta, “Ways of Knowing and Stories Worth Telling,” It Was Like A Fever: Storytelling in Protest and Politics, (Chicago: University of Chicago, 2006), (pp. 109-140). [32 pages]

Kim Voss, “Claim Making and Framing of Defeats: Interpretations of Losses by British and American Labor Activists, 1886-1895”, Challenging Authority: the Historical Study of Contentious Politics, Michael Hanagan, Leslie Page Moch, and Wayne te Brake eds., (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998), (pp. 136-148). [13 pages]

Week 5: Change

How can we exercise narrative leadership in response to change? One response we can make it that of rejection: no change for us. Another could be that of radical embrace: out with the old story, in with the new one. We may also find a way to accommodate enough change within our old story to assure continuity. On the other hand, we may also find away to adapt enough of our old story to the new one, to facilitate real change.

Joshua J. Yates and James Davison Hunter, “Chapter 6, Fundamentalism: When History Goes Awry”, Stories of Change: Narratives and Social Movements, Joe Davis ed., (Albany: State University of New York, 2002), (pp.123-148). [26 pages]

Bruner and Amsterdam, “Chapter 9, Race, the Court and America’s Dialectic”, Minding the Law, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000), (pp.246-281). Continuity narrative (Plessey), Change narrative (Brown). [14 pages]

Week 6: Catching Our Breath – Where are We Now

This week, you will step back and reflect on what you have been learning about how you can use public narrative to deal with four major leadership challenges. What new insights have you gained? What are you still struggling with?

Week 7: Conclusion – Conflict, Continuity, and Change

In your last section meeting you have the opportunity to reflect on what you have learned, what has facilitated your learning, what improvements you would make. It is also an opportunity to articulate appreciation for the contribution section members have made to each other’s learning. What did you learn about how to use public narrative in response to major leadership challenges? What did you learn about how to diagnose the challenge? What about how to strategize a narrative response? What does it really mean to enable others to act with agency in response to challenge? How can you tell if you succeeded?

Page created by: Ian Clark, last updated 26 December 2015.