By Michaela O’Donnell Long

(Editor’s note: Michaela O’Donnell Long is a business owner and doctoral student in Practical Theology at Fuller Theological Seminary. In this series she explores the intersection of creativity, adaptive change, and workplace design. Read Part 1 here and Part 2 here.)

How do leaders implement safe and challenging environments in ways that really take root among their people? They tell stories.

In story, we find the invitation to temporarily suspend our own reality and safely enter into that of a created world. N.T. Wright states in his The New Testament and the People of God, “We are drawn irresistibly into the world of story.” Because we are so enticed by story, it can serve as a tool to hold people in the midst of tough challenges. In Seeking God in Story, theologian John Navone argues that we experience our own world at its deepest level only when we have made the willing suspension of disbelief whereby we enter into the wonderful and gracious created world of a story. As we watch or listen to a story, we naturally perceive the characters and situations in light of our own experiences. Even if our coloring is not overt, we cannot help but interpret stories through the lens of our own mental models—the categories we use to make sense of the world. But as a story’s themes and values being to find their place within our own value systems, the two stories (external and personal) begin to influence one another. Because of this, stories have the power to change how we perceive and act in the world.

A production designer/art director working to construct a child's imagination.

A production designer/art director working to construct a child’s imagination.

In the workplace, leaders can work to embed stories into organizational life. As people encounter narratives that help them see the world in new ways, they encounter new possibilities for the way they engage work, relationships, and creativity. One idea for how to implement story into the workplace is by experimenting with physical space.

 and a funeral scene on a film I produced and my company made.

Storytelling at work.

Both architecturally and ornamentally, physical space can display the arc of an organization’s story—the movement between hope, failure, and triumph. In workplace design, story ought to precede space. Layout, color, and other design elements, should be rooted in an organization’s story.  Then, optimal space for work can be formatted around organizational narrative, rather than tasks and duties. One place where this occurs naturally is in film. When making a movie, no one ever starts by saying, “Well we’ve got this great location, let’s find something to film here.” Instead, they start with the story. Writers, directors, and producers work and work to develop the story. Once it’s ready, it’s embedded in a team. Among that team are location scouts and production designers—people who work to make the film’s setting reflect the world of the characters and script. For them, story naturally precedes space.

Michaela O’Donnell Long is the co-owner of Long Winter Media, which specializes in crafting story through film, image, and word. She is pursuing a PhD in Practical Theology at Fuller Theological Seminary and is a doctoral fellow of Fuller’s Max De Pree Center for Leadership.

Fieldnotes Magazine is a publication of the Max De Pree Center for Leadership at Fuller Theological Seminary. We would love to hear from you about people, businesses, or other organizations we can interview or feature. Please email the editor at Fieldnotes Magazine.


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