Book of the Year & The Value of Storytelling

2020. What a year it has been.  We’ve all experienced what it truly means to live in a VUCA- volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous- world.  From a global pandemic to social and political unrest there have been literal and figurative storms everywhere.  They haven’t seemed to end.  Will they end? 

And in all this, what does a leader do? Our 2020 book of the year suggests that true leaders go Upstream.  Whether in a crisis or not, the quest to solve problems before they happen- as the subtitle of the book indicates- is a noble calling, especially during times where problems seem to be everywhere. 

And in the year of such volatility and uncertainty, a theme that has come out for us is the power of story (again as seen in our very first book of the year pick).   

As I sat facilitating a focus group one day for a client, I was struck by the candor amongst group members that began to come out about a difficult topic.  Their candor was shared through the lense of their own stories and the stories of others that had impacted them in large and small ways.

I paused and asked, “Do you all talk about things like this normally? At work?”

They all just stared at me.  One person finally said, “No, not at all.” 

I suggested that they might find benefit by finding a way to engage in dialogue with each other more often, learning each other’s stories and experiences as a way to bridge divides that seem to be everywhere these days.   

Overcoming polarization is upstream work.  And taking the time to seek out and hear other’s stories so we can build empathy, understanding, patience, tolerance, and self-awareness is also upstream work.  One being the means and the other being the end to the what the means seeks to achieve. 

As I look back on what I’ve read this year, Upstream has been the one book that has engaged our team in a transformation of thought that we hope is impacting our work.  The point is that in all upstream success, we have to get personal.  “Macro starts with micro” and you have to work on a “name-by-name” basis, as the author Dan Heath states repeatedly. 

And as I also look at the totality or “macro” of my reading list for 2020, more memoirs are present this year.  A diversity of unique and very personal stories have been interwoven into my thought process.  What this has provided, I hope, is a valuable perspective, increased empathy, heightened self-awareness, exposure to things I have never experienced, and a platform for engaging in dialogue with others about shared and diverse experiences.  

So, if you’re seeking to engage in the more upstream work of seeking out and sharing stories, maybe a first step is picking out some good memoirs to read with your team and then discuss.  

Here’s a list to get you started (all ones I really enjoyed in 2020): 


Hillbilly Elegy

The Gift of an Ordinary Day 

The Unwinding of the Miracle

Caste: The Origins of our Discontents Although this book is not actually a memoir, the author interweaves personal experiences and stories to illustrate her well-researched thoughts on the issue of race in America. 

41: A Portrait of My Father

Upstream asks the question, “How many problems in our lives and in society are we tolerating simply because we’ve forgotten that we can fix them?” 

Let’s make 2021 a year of taking ownership of upstream work and moving forward one next right thing at a time with the patience and diligence to allow our efforts to bear fruit.  Let’s start by seeking out others’ stories, having the voice to share our own, and having the grace and empathy to learn and grow when other’s stories differ from our own. 

What stories are you telling and listening to? 

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Let’s Go Upstream

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