Q&A with a Story Guru: Karen Dietz: Looking Beyond the Hero’s Journey

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I first encountered Karen Dietz while working on my dissertation and have eagerly followed her work ever since. It is a true thrill and privilege to present her Q&A here. This Q&A will appear over the next five days.

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Bio (from her Polaris Associates Web site): Karen Dietz, PhD., owner of Polaris Associates Consulting, Inc., works with leaders and executive teams who want to assemble and cultivate their most compelling stories, and tell them in ways that produces results. Her background in the diverse fields of folklore, creativity, strategy, organizational development, high performance teams, and interpersonal communication have allowed her to develop targeted approaches to executive storytelling and organizational narratives. As a coach, facilitator and storyteller, her clients have included Walt Disney Imagineering, Chase Manhattan Bank, City of Santa Monica, and Avery Dennison.

Karen draws on her experience in top-flight organizations to provide practical experience, guidance, and tools that can be put to work immediately.

Karen received her doctorate in Folklore from the University of Pennsylvania and is the former Executive Director of the National Storytelling Network. She is a member of the National Communication Association, Organizational Development Network, the National Storytelling Network, an online organizational narrative community of practice Worldwide Story Work, the past president and former program chair of the Storytelling In Organizations Special Interest Group. Karen is also a certified coach in Vocal Awareness techniques, and is one of the few in the field of stories and organizations bringing together story and vocal skills for greater effectiveness. In addition, her personality type reports for work environments are popular and sold worldwide

In her own words: “With a PhD in Folklore, I’ve always been engaged with stories. When I moved from academics into business training and consulting, I was always listening for, working with, analyzing, and retelling stories as a part of my team building, org change, and leadership engagements.

“In working with senior executives and organizational change, I repeatedly saw how if a leader could tell a compelling story about what change needed to happen, and why, the chance of the initiative succeeding was great. If they could not tell a compelling story about it, I could guarantee the initiative would fail. Why waste all that money doing a year’s worth of research, recommendations, plans and action steps when it could all go so easily down the drain in just a
few moments?

“In 2000 I decided to shift my business to working with senior executives, organizations, and their stories so they could stop wasting buckets of money. And be more effective!

“Over the decades, as a professional storyteller, I’ve been trained by some of the best performance storytellers in the nation.

“My goals for leaders are to increase their effectiveness, be compelling, capture the hearts and minds of people, and save money.

“My goals for organizations is to crystallize their identity through compelling stories, be more effective in both internal and external communication, produce bottom-line measurable results, and increase their profits.”


Q&A with Karen Dietz, Questions 1 and 2:

Q: You offer a workshop described this way: “For the past 20 years, a complete cycle of stories has been slowly dying while a new cycle of stories is rapidly growing. Understand where our culture is heading and how these changes in story impact your product/service, marketing and sales strategies.” I’m sure you could write volumes about this story cycle, but if you can summarize briefly, please tell readers the cause of this cycling of stories and a few key characteristics of the new cycle of stories.

A: I’ve changed my thoughts on this statement, somewhat. I am now focusing on the mono-myth of the hero and how inadequate it is today to meet our needs as a human race. Of course, the hero story will always be present. But today almost all of what we do has been reduced to the hero’s story or journey. monomyth.gif Not everything we do is heroic, and there are plenty of other journeys than the hero’s. In fact, when I work with leaders, I talk about how the hero story that they’ve grown up with in an organization needs to be replaced by the magician’s story and journey. The hero’s journey is a story of an individual. The magician’s journey is the story of a community. It’s based in building community, telling and sharing stories of community in order to reach a goal. At some point, every manager has to put away the hero’s story of an individual making it happen. Instead, they need to become a leader who, as a magician, facilitates organizational change. I could write volumes on this topic, and it’s only in the last few years that I’ve started to share some of my thinking about this.

On the story cycle: Why are we so steeped in the hero’s journey? I wish I knew. Organizational story professional Richard Stone talked many years ago about the “de-storification” of our culture. You can see it all the time in the formulaic movies Hollywood produces. And you can see it when the news media scrambles to identify a lone hero when in fact the story is about several heroes or a community of heroes. Where are the trickster tales? Where are the stories of community? Where are the king or queen stories? Where are the crone stories? I could go on. So as a storyteller, I am always asking myself, “What are the stories that are not being told that people might need to hear?” and “What different kinds of stories do I need to listen for?” I find those to be much more provocative questions that helps shape my work as coach, consultant, trainer, and storyteller.

Q: How did you initially become involved with story/storytelling/narrative? What attracted you to this field? What do you love about it?

A: I initially became involved in storytelling through graduate school where I was receiving my doctorate in Folklore & Folklife from the University of Pennsylvania. I was exposed to storytelling as an academic subject, but it really made an impact on me when I got to know storyteller Ron Evans from Canada. As the keeper of the sacred stories for his tribe (Chippewa/Cree), he taught me the power of oral storytelling, and I learned the most about stories and storytelling from him. His lessons about the care and feeding of stories I still carry with me today, and I do my best to pass along what he taught me.

7 thoughts on “Q&A with a Story Guru: Karen Dietz: Looking Beyond the Hero’s Journey

  1. I love the deep thinking of this post. My two cents:

    I am not sure there is a need to “replace” the hero story with any other story. It’s more about knowing what stories to call at what points. The Hero story, the Crone story, the Warrior and so forth can all be used at anytime in most organizations.

    It is not, from my experience, time to put away any story. It is time to know how to call, collect and share the right stories. I do agree that most organizations tend to use only one Archetype in their group’s collective Myth. *That* should change.

    We do also need to recognize that within organizations there are as many people turned off by the Archetype A or Archetype B while their neighbor feels the opposite. I spent a great deal of time in one company that was trying to be Magician all the time while the real need was Warrior. Teamwork is soemtimes the answer, not always the answer.

    “Hi Everyone, it’s Jack here. Let’s talk about how we might best deal with the Giant who is quickly coming down the beanstalk. I’d like each of you to take a little swing with this axe. If you’d like, you may use your own axe if you share with us the personal history of your axe. Okay, who would like to begin?”

    I guess it is all about balance and understanding application and theory need to be blended.

  2. What wonderful comments Sean! I agree — it’s not about replacing the hero’s story with others — I just want more balance I guess! And I want us to be telling different kinds of stories that will help us along instead of potentially getting stuck in only one model of leadership. Human beings are so talented and it’s a shame how many org or personnel solutions can be one dimensional — “I’m this archetype, or this personality type” as if we are defined ONLY by those. That’s what I love about stories and storytelling — the ability to convey of multifaceted meaning and experience.

    So yes, more blending needed!

  3. Karen, I thought you were more for balance than the interview conveyed. Thanks for the clarification.

  4. Hi Karen–I saw your info on the net and wondered if you were born in Wyndmoor, PA? Were your parents Ann and TOm Dietz? Chances are small, but if so, my name is Mary Porter Class and I lived there and played with Karen Dietz as a child. Would you please let me know if we were childhood buddies? Thanks very much and TTFN…Mary

  5. Hi Mary — unfortunately I’m not the Karen Dietz you are looking for. Bummer, I know. I did live 10 years in Philadelphia, but Dietz is my married name and my husband’s relatives are all from Wisconsin. I hope you eventually connect with your childhood friend. I bet there are a lot of stories there! Take care — Karen

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