Meaning Makers: How Top Leaders Use Stories with David Pearl

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Hello, this is Mark Bidwell. Now with me today is David Pearl who is the author of a couple of wonderful books, one of which is called Story for Leaders, another one about meetings called Will There Be Donuts? and you describe yourself, David, as an innovator in business, the arts and social change – what does that mean?

That means I’m trying to find a sure way of explaining to my mum what I do and failing, but having looked back over my, what you might call, career, I think innovation is at the heart of it. I find myself unable not to tinker with conventions so my background is actually in the arts, I was an opera singer since I was a little kid, and I run and still do run a couple of odd opera companies, one which is a circus and opera company, and the other is an improv and opera company, so I like to bash things together that don’t seem to belong. That’s the arts bit. Business, through my performance work I was besotted by business and have, for the last 20-30 years I suppose, been bringing innovation, particularly arts based innovation, into businesses although now I wouldn’t say you’d necessarily notice that it’s got an arts base, it just looks like creativity and I work at board level and we’ll perhaps talk a bit about some of the innovations that leaders are trying to bring into their organizations, and how to do that, and how to block it. And social change, it sounds a little bit pompous but I do run a non-profit called Street Wisdom which we might talk about which is trying to take some of the work that we’ve learned in business and make it freely available on the streets to help inspire people in the urban surrounding.

So let’s come back to a little bit earlier on. If we can start with the kind of work you’re doing in the corporate world. Many of our listeners are in large organizations, most of which are threatened by changes in regulation, or consumer habits, or new technology, that threat of disruption, the Kodak moment is around the corner. How do you help organizations wrestling with that? You talk about innovation but what do you actually do?

Well I’ll be honest, lots of things, but I think the – I say that, I’m laughing just because I’m often puzzling, ‘What is it that I do?’, but I think the red thread is finding the extraordinary in the everyday. It sounds a bit loosey goosey but I suppose what that means is, working with teams who are tired looking for a reboot would be about helping them find extraordinary new solutions into their the everyday work. Working on meetings, I do a lot of work designing and leading often high-stakes meetings and before you fall asleep and dribble down the front of your shirt the word ‘meetings’ in there is a bit of a turn off but as you and I both know, actually, it’s the engine of post-industrial life, getting people together and exchanging ideas and creating new things is actually the combustion engine, I think, of our economy and so I think whilst a lot of meetings are deplorable and life sucking, what I often try to do is get the absolute maximum value when you bring people together, and above that I think it’s – I call myself a creative confidante to leaders, and what that really means is sitting with people who are trying to get stuff done and from my position of ignorance or outsiderness, let’s put it that way, suggesting ways of doing that are different, surprising, actually sort of more human and we could talk about that a bit later perhaps but just more human than traditional businesses.

So you can’t see me but I am genuinely interested in meetings for the simple reason that, as an innovator, or if you’re trying to make something happen differently in an organization, the vehicle as you say is through the meetings. I’m a trained anthropologist and the way I look at meetings, it almost gives you a window into the culture of an organization because if you watch how meetings get done, it gives you a really good clue in terms of how the organization works on a day to day basis essentially.

I think we were separated at birth you and I. That’s exactly – when I first stumbled into business I saw meetings through a sort of theatrical lens and thought they were fascinating minutes, very dramatic what happens in meetings, most of the drama is hidden but it’s still there, and I think that coming from a background in ensemble work in theater and in music, I see meetings as an ensemble, and what I mean by that is a group of different people, different components come together and when they properly connect genuinely, what I call ‘really meet, not nearly meet’, something else comes into the room, it’s like there’s another presence. If there are five people in a meeting, there are actually six. There are the five humans and then there’s the meeting which is a living organism that’s wiser than any of the individuals, and I think, more and more, we’re seeing a world where we need creativity and people recognise that creativity is going to emerge from the space between us, not from us as individuals. It sounds a bit hifalutin but there’s a Buddhist philosopher, Thích Nhất Hạnh, who says the next the next Buddha will be a group, not an individual which I think is really quite an exciting thought.

So as you work with boards of well-known organizations, we don’t need to name them but, a leader running a meeting can either take up the space or they can create the space for the right things to happen. As you say for the sixth being to appear out of the five people around the table, what do you see that leaders who are really good at creating this space, what are they doing versus those that just take up space and suck the life out of the whole activity?

That’s a great question, Mark. What a lot of them do either by themselves or because I nudge them to, is not lead, in the sense that I discourage the most senior person from leading the meeting. I encourage people to host a meeting but to have other people lead it and I guess what that means is the technical agenda, if you want to call it that, but then what happens is the meeting is led by somebody who is not the most senior person. What the most senior person does is make it clear that they’re accountable for the business outcome, and they listen a lot, and they create, a bit like a good host at a cocktail party. They make sure that the bits connect, they sit back and they listen, and they watch the smart ones, and their presence lends a kind of gravitas and importance to the meeting but as you say they don’t take up a lot of the air time.

And for the person who isn’t the formal leader but who is participating in these kinds of meetings, what do really good meeting participants do versus the ones who sit on their Blackberries or fall asleep? What are their behaviors?

I think the behaviors are many and varied but one of the things I encourage is for people to all assume if you’re in a meeting, it’s your meeting, so there’s an element of, it’s a buzzword but, accountability. In other words, you’re never hostage to somebody else’s meeting. If you’re there you chose to be there and if you didn’t choose to be there, that’s your attitude. ‘I’m choosing to be here’, that’s first and foremost. How you participate, of course, depends on the type of meeting and what I spoke about helping people, I try to ban the use of the word ‘meeting’ because it’s so generic, because solving a problem is very different to celebrating an achievement or checking on progress, so I think the people who participate well know why they’re there and participate appropriately. I think real conversations are a good thing. I think they’re difficult to have so I would try to teach people how to do, it sounds weird, but having a real conversation which cuts through the noise is an art, it’s a skill, and I think that that’s something that everybody however junior needs to feel they can have in the meeting.  Another great quality is knowing when you’re done, which is not one that businesses are famous for but having that sense of ‘when the chicken’s cooked, stopped cooking it’ and sometimes it’s the more junior people that put up their hand and go, ‘We’re done, right?’ and that’s a very healthy thing to be able to do.

Yeah, there are a couple of companies that I’ve heard have got some pretty stark meeting behaviours. One is ‘Body Armour’, the manufacturers of sporting clothes. Apparently, they have countdown clocks in their meeting rooms rather like the clock in a football game and that drives the whole process.

All I would say about that, that’s Under Armour, isn’t it?  


I mean neither you nor I own any of their products, I’m guessing, but there you are. We probably should go out and get some. But the thing I would say about the clock thing and, yes, I hear you, what tends to happen when people try to be innovative about their meetings is they tend to actually go for efficiency rather than effectiveness and there’s nothing wrong with that. Being efficient with your time is good however it presupposes that you set enough time for the meeting and you know what it was for, and what can happen is that all that happens if you start being very time aware is that you further send out stress because a meeting that’s planned for an hour which should have had three hours allowed for it is now going to take fifty minutes, and you end up, yes, you got out of the meeting quicker, but you didn’t get more out of it. Now I’m being provocative because, of course, aware of time and presence of time is important but I think it goes hand in hand, the efficiency must go ahead and go hand in hand with effectiveness.

Yeah, and final question on this topic, David. Many of your clients, people you work with, they’re working in global organizations running around the world. Where do you stand on virtual versus face-to-face? I presume hands down face-to-face is better but the cost of that physically and in terms of time, getting to and from and stuff, what’s your view on this?

Virtually. I think it’s very good to save the planet and not burn unnecessary carbons so virtually when it’s appropriate. I think the rule of thumb for me is once you’ve met somebody properly once, it’s much easier to meet them virtually second time. I think, choose your subjects, your topics. So there are certain meetings that you can definitely do virtually. Project updates, and information sharing, and virtual town halls are useful but be wise. If there’s strategic stuff that needs to be done, or a sense of conflict, or a sale or something like that, it might well be worth getting on a plane if necessary and doing it face-to-face. Again that requires a mindfulness about what it is that you’re actually seeking to achieve.

Yeah, there’s a business outcome being first and foremost. Yeah, so let’s switch stories. Now, I love the book and as I said to you earlier on I was staggered to see that two previous guests were appearing on subsequent pages, Kevin Kelly and Robin Swan. Now getting into this, I think you say early on that we’re all having conversations with ourselves, this is sort of living in a cave – I think it was Plato – so our head is full of fiction as a language, we live in this cave – why are stories so important in terms of the stories we’re telling ourselves and then the follow-on question is, why are they important in the workplace?

That’s a great question, and I’ll try to be brief. I think when people say story there’s a little bit of a pejorative association about it like it’s made up and it’s not factual, and it’s just ‘Oh you’re just telling yourself a story’ but I’d like to remove that pejorative to say that narratives are very often how we make meaning of the world and I think that, of course, affects what we make things mean, affects enormously how we feel and act about them, and so I feel now, more and more, in the world that we’re living in that it’s useful to be the active manager of your mental narrative. Don’t beat yourself up about it and don’t try to be cup half-full the whole time, but I think just noticing what you’re making real in your mind is important. There are many ways of doing this. You can do it with yourself, or coaches very often are one level helping you inquire into your unconscious narratives, what you’re making things mean, and it can be very, extremely, extremely helpful. I think not just looking backwards at the story you’re telling yourself about what has happened, but the story you’re telling yourself about what is going to happen. Many of us, I include myself, are beset by fears and concerns and the future is unknown. I think what I try to explore in the book and in my work with businesses is that if you can harness the fiction making part of your mind helpfully. You can shape what happens in a good way rather than just deepening the panic.

And this is not just as an individual but also as a leader so I think the quote that comes from Richard Bandler, ‘You either change the world or you change how you look at the world’, that is equally relevant at an individual level and as a leader, creating meaning or helping create meaning for your team for example.

Yes, of course. I absolutely agree with that and I think I define a leader as anyone who wants to get anything done in the world and needs more than one person to help them do it, so that’s most of us, right?

That’s a nice definition, yeah.

I don’t mean a leader is someone with a big flag and a suit of armor, and I think that’s absolutely right that if you’ve got a compelling narrative it can engage people to do stuff far more than a set of plausible facts. It’s good if it’s fact based but future facts are not facts, they’re assumptions, they’re trends and so forth, so I think that in a world that’s cluttered with information, and I’m not saying anything that your listeners don’t know already, the primacy of – it’s not surprising that people want stories, narratives that compress all the available information into a form that’s digestible and meaningful to them, so I do believe that it’s – I’ll be provocative and say it’s almost the leader’s main job to create meaning. I think we’re meaning makers first and action doers second, because people, of course, increasingly have a choice. We’re not in that kind of military situation that our parents and their parents were in, or a very industrialized system where – I say ‘we’re not’ but there are parts of the world that very much are but – for a lot of us business has become much more sort of opt-in, opt-out, it’s much more constellations rather than pyramids, and I think if you want to engage and lead people then you need to be able to tell an inspiring story that’s meaningful for people.

And is the first step just understanding what dialogue you’re telling yourself? Is that required for you to be really effective in this area or can you tune that out and actually jump straight into building a future narrative for yourself in your organization? Is that self-awareness a prerequisite from your experience? 

I think so. I think there’s got to be an element of that because very few businesses will – put it this way: the more compelling leaders are ones whose own narrative overlaps with that of their business. Now if you’re the founder of the business you’re in the lucky but unlucky position of being able to say, ‘My story is this company’s story’. You’re unlucky if it goes wrong because that’s your story too, but I think that if I’m honest that the most successful working relationships, working situations are ones where you’re ‘why’ overlaps with the organizations ‘why’ and I say the ‘why’ because – I won’t get into it too much now but stories are really driven by ‘why’ not ‘what’, and so I think the minimum level of self-introspection that you’re talking about is really before you start telling a future story to people, just check your own ‘why’ and is this consistent with your deeper intent.

And assuming people are listening to this hopefully not on their commute behind the wheel of a car but if they’re beginning to sort of think, ‘well what is my why?’, if they’ve either uncovered it or are able to uncover it by your prompting, what happens next? You uncover your ‘why’ or you create your ‘why’, in order to build this sort of future based story – and I love the point around the future, it’s not facts it’s just these are things that might or might not – and that’s very liberating of course because you can as you say, you can write your own narrative, so what are the steps, trying to boil it down into making it far more simple than it really is, but how would you advise someone who is keen on developing a narrative, a compelling narrative?

Yeah well, I think borrowing from what I know of story writing in film, and stage, and theater, the ‘why?’ gives you a direction, like ‘Where could this go?’ and sort of go to the end and work back is quite a helpful way to go, ‘Well, here’s where I see us landing’. Elon Musk, the great engineer but also a very great storyteller, is leading this push to colonize Mars but he sees it very real for him but really he says, ‘You know I want to die on Mars just not on impact’, so he’s really seeing himself retiring and living out his final days on Mars but as an engineer he doesn’t want to land on Mars and explode. So entrepreneurs have this five-year, ten-year gaze and what they see in the future is very real so all I would say is think about your ‘why?’, think about where you want it to take you and in what period of time and then see that as very real and then work back not as a planner trying to figure out how to avoid obstacles but actually trying allow your mind to include the most interesting things that could happen along the way, stories driven by ups and downs not just by an arrow working from A to B, it’s more like you need to meander so if you’re thinking about the year ahead or two years ahead for your team,  have a word with yourself and with them about the things they fear are going to happen and build them in. It sounds a bit counter-intuitive but if you can build in what you think is going to be a low point, you can embrace it and learn from it whereas a lot of planning is about trying to avoid the bad things, or the difficult things or the challenging things that we fear are going to happen. An author of the future looks and goes, ‘No, let’s build that in!’. We’ve got to have the low point in order to learn something from it.

Well, I’m glad you got that in because I was going to ask you, that lovely Gates comment in the book, or quote, ‘Success is a lousy teacher. It reduces smart people into thinking they can’t fail’, or ‘seduces smart people into thinking’ – I can’t read my writing but – so lows make us smarter, they engage your listener as well. I’m curious – when you’re working with very, very accomplished executives how do you get them to include the lows in their stories because many of them, I guess, would have been trained to have ignored them or certainly not talk about them?

Well, I think it often starts in a quiet conversation between you and them and I encourage them to look at lows slightly differently. What most interests me is not low points but turning points. It’s the point where what feels like a downward descent kicks up into something else and I think we all know that feeling. If you look back on a time when a low point turned into a turning point usually you learned something, or you heard something, or you listened to someone for the first time or listened to somebody in a different way, so I think if you can encourage senior people to look back at their moments of maximum learning then they’re less protective of those moments. Also to understand that sharing a low point or learning point with your team, it can be incredibly powerful. People have hidden it because they think it’s a sign of weakness broadly but in the world we’re living in with much more focus on a much more welcome destigmatizing of low points in the workplace, people can be encouraged to talk about stuff. I have people do it, senior people do it, as much as possible on a weekly basis or a monthly basis, to pepper their conversations or their town halls with phrases like, ‘Here’s what I learned this week’ or ‘Here’s what I did wrong and learned this week’ and it’s just a huge relief for people who are following that leader to understand that being conscious of your so-called failures and learning from them quickly and not in way but in the real way is not just allowed but it’s welcome. That sends a strong signal out to the organisation.

Yeah, I guess the cynical people listening here or the people questioning, particularly in this kind of post-truth world that we apparently live, and you alluded to earlier on, the word story has been stigmatized but the quote that I’ll put out which, just to get into this part of it, around a friend of mine who’s invested in gold mines and I pointed out that a gold mine is a hole in the ground owned by a liar. Now whether that’s a lie, it could be just a very, very compelling storyteller, he’s great at telling stories but how do you personally, David, you’re an expert in this but how do you tell the difference? At what point do you say, ‘This person isn’t just very good at – but this might be a very good storyteller but in actual fact there’s something about this person that means – that the stories, I don’t buy it’, how do you filter this kind of situation out in your mind?

Well, I may be an expert in story, I’m not sure that’s – thank you for saying that – but I think I’m very much a student like us all being able to – I think what you said, ‘How do you know a compelling story from a lie?’ – the sorts of things that I think I look for and there won’t be any surprises for your listeners is that sort of hot under the collar feeling, it’s sort of subjective. I think we’re animals, we’ve got these subjective radars and it’s something to do with somebody who’s telling a story that when they’re making themselves the hero of the story, I feel it’s a warning sign. I think a leader in a really genuine story for the future puts you, the listener, makes you the hero. There are statesmen who genuinely talk about a future story that makes you feel you’ve got a part to play in it and there are those you feel, really, this is about their journey, they are the hero of the story. I think that’s one. Is it genuinely inclusive or is it not? I think whilst we’re in a world where fiction and narrative has always been incredibly powerful – I mean, you don’t build cathedrals in medieval times unless someone’s got the vision which is to say, ‘There will be, in a thousand years, a great cathedral in this spot’, you need that but I think in a world where fiction or the made up is, as you say, all definitely on the rise, it doesn’t mean you don’t listen out for facts. I think it is very good assessing and listening to someone’s future story, assess their success in the past? What have they done? I think that’s prudent. And then I think, ask yourself, ‘What’s the contract here?’ Generally, if someone’s telling you a story there’s a sort of give and get. Why are they telling you this story? What is it that they’re asking of you? I suggest that executives and leaders are really up front about that. Then they would say, ‘I’m going to paint a picture for you’ or ‘I’m going to tell you a story and here’s why. Here’s what I want. I want you to just feel you’re in or out, or I need your help on this or I challenge you on this’. In other words, let the listener know why you’re telling them the story and be upfront about it, and I think if someone does do that, you’re in safer territory. People, the cynics if you like, they say, ‘You’re just trying to sell me something’ and I don’t think that’s wrong. I think we are trying to sell each other, particularly in terms of the future, alternative futures. The election is about that. Statesmanship is about that. And I just – the last lines of the book really are, ‘Tell stories you’d be proud to live’. In other words, if this thing came true would you be proud to have had a part in it? There is no guarantee of course that the predominant stories are healthy. You’ve just got to keep – it’s a bit – healthy stories are a bit like healthy food. I’m not great at it but just being conscious. If you listen, say, ‘Is this going to leave me clogged or clean this story? and I think we have to be very vigilant when we’re looking through our news feed, our devices and where we’re surfing the internet. It’s a rather unregulated diet out there.

Yeah, well, particularly if you’ve created your own little bubble which you don’t realize you’ve done until you’re too late anyway, in terms of who you’re following. Let’s just make this real for those who are listening and thinking, ‘What’s the intent of Mark interviewing David?’. It is really, again, because this is such a core skill in capability to build and if I reflect on my executive career, I spent most of my time either in meetings or telling stories either externally or internally, and to be able to master that, and I struggle with it, but I’m far more active about it or far more purposeful about it which is why I was so keen to have you on the show. So I do think this is such an important skill, and it’s something that we’re not really – unless you’re taught as you were in the arts, it’s very – we’re taught to do presentations, and we’re taught to rationally, logically take apart a problem but this isn’t something that’s in many business schools’ curriculum I don’t think?

Sure. I think it’s increasingly finding its way but I do think you’re right. I do think the time has come for what used to be thought of as arts thinking, it’s just definitely become more mainstream otherwise I wouldn’t be making a living from it I suspect. It’s market forces. There are some things I could share, one or two techniques if people are interested in how you do a story, they’re in the book but – you probably do this well if you’ve got a kid under the age of eight and you tell them a bedtime story so if you don’t, just remember when you were eight. You know this stuff, but the sorts of things that distinguish a story from a plan, stories have heroes. Heroes generally speaking are itchy people or things. People are itchy, they want to achieve something, they always have a dream, they itch, they don’t quite fit the world around them. So a dinosaur that wants to fly or a sheep that’s always wanted to go to school is just the same as saying you want to go to Mars. So there’s that. The second thing to say is, be specific about when you’re storytelling. So storytellers know that it’s Thursday and it’s raining. You don’t just say, ‘On a day in the future this is going to happen’, you say, ‘Picture the day. It’s Wednesday, we’re in Canary Wharf and it’s raining.’ In other words, be as bold about the future as you were about the past. It’s clear and paint pictures. Embrace the low points like we’ve just said, highs and lows are what it’s all about. Include some really difficult choices in the story. It sounds counter-intuitive but if you’re talking to your team about what lies ahead, it points in advance to the places where you suspect there’s going to be a fork in the road, where there’s a difficult decision to make. And I suppose the last thing to say is surprise people. People are looking for entertainment as much as something else, so as a leader, see if you can surprise your team. In other words, there are twists and turns in the future story that they didn’t expect.

Brilliant. There are piles in the book, and we’ll put it in the show notes so that people can go out and get it because it is, as I say, it’s a core skill and this is a great way – they exercise in the book a great pull is forcing you to get on this journey. So just before we wrap up with the questions I sent out, David. Can you just tell a little about Street Wisdom which you alluded to at the beginning of the conversation, it’s interesting. Just tell the story around how that came about and what your role is?

Well, it is a story, it’s been years in the making. Basically about ten years ago I was doing self-development courses as I’m sure you have and hugging trees around the world and someone said to me, ‘Give me a little clue about working streets? and I thought, ‘I don’t know what that means’ but I found myself starting to work with executives in the streets, taking them out of the office where they had an identity and just using this area out there where so-called real life is happening, and bit by bit I began to work with some techniques and did it myself and I’ve now created a three-hour immersive walking workshop that we put on the internet and encourage people to do around the world. It’s in thirty countries around the world, it’s spreading like wildfire. Now businesses are beginning to get into this as well. The public event is a free event, no money changes hands. We say, ‘You don’t pay fees, you pay attention’ and essentially it’s three parts. The first is to tune up your senses which I found very foolproof ways of doing which are very accessible for people. Then going for a wander. Yes, it’s that simple. With your own senses go for a wander and ask a question, ask a question about work or a life question for an hour. See what the street tells you and it might tell you this in shop signs, or strange sounds, or snippets of overheard conversation, or even bumping into strangers, people increasingly are talking to strangers on the street, and then come back and share what you learned and it is quite, especially for me, it has wildly exceeded my expectations in terms of what people get from having permission to wander, what they get in terms of answers, insights, new directions and so on. And also the speed at which it’s growing, it’s got a kind of Linux feel, a shareware feel to it and it’s going very fast in the world so I’m rushing to keep up, but it’s a situation – it’s a luxury problem to have.

Wonderful. Well, also, I guess, one of the questions we asked guests in the past is what do they do to remain creative and innovative and often the answer is going out and just doing something very, very different although it’s normal for others and I guess that’s one of the beauties of this program, this process, is that it’s a very normal process but it does actually get you to engage with the world and yourself in a very different way.

Absolutely. It takes an ordinary activity and makes it extraordinary. This goes back to what originally said which is I am forced to conclude that there’s something about finding the extraordinary in the everyday which propels a lot of my innovation work.

Lovely, lovely. So I know we’re on the clock a little bit, David, the three questions I sent through to you beforehand. First one: what have you changed your mind about recently?

Well, it’s a great question, difficult question actually, but I was forced to admit to the press – in the book, I gave them a good old beating for being some of the purveyors of fiction. You know, news stories are called stories and so on. I do think in the world we’re living in that quality journalism is unusually important particularly those papers who are deliberately sounding the left and the right wing views and so on. I think it’s become much more important and less – some of the things in the book I probably should take back but I haven’t.

But it’s a relative distinction, I suppose, isn’t it, because the world has changed a lot since you wrote that book?

Yeah, absolutely.

Second question: do you have a personal work habit or practice that you can share with our listeners that helps make you more effective?

Well, we’ve spoken a little bit about it but I think what I do is I practice Street Wisdom in the corridor. So I’m not always in the street but when I’m in, as I am at the moment, in a big skyscraper somewhere in a financial district or whatever, when I go between one thing and another, so when we finish and I go on to something else, I’ll try to notice that thirty seconds and try to recharge, reconnect, breathe, go back to neutral if you like, get a bit of an impulse from the outside and then move on so I would say broadly, seize the gap, spot the gap. 

Lovely. Reminds me of Wayne Dyer, he had a program called Mind The Gap which was not a million miles away from that, just trying to pause for the next step.

Yeah, he was great.

Wasn’t he? A real loss actually.

Yeah, I agree, I agree.

I presume you’ve watched his film?

No, I’m not sure I have. I’ve been to a couple of seminars of his way back when I was in my – what’s the film?

So it’s still for free on the internet I think. It’s called From Ambition to Meaning. It’s a lovely film and for anyone who hasn’t listened to it who is listening to this, who hasn’t seen it –  yeah, strongly recommend it. At a certain point in one’s life, it really resonates and really helps make some of the decisions. So if I look at the fork in my life I would say the catalyst was actually watching this film several times backwards and forwards to Brazil on business trips which just got me thinking and looking at the world in a very different way. So, lovely film. And then the third question: just going to the lows of your story, what’s been your most significant failure, your deepest low and what have you learned from it, and how do you apply that learning, David?

Yeah, it’s a very good question. The word ‘failure’ I struggled with because I was going, ‘Yeah, but I don’t really see it as failures’ and I was like, ‘Come on, get off it! He wants a failure’. The one that comes to mind, it’s actually more of a low point and I’ve spoken a bit about this. I was asked to do a talk recently, last year actually for the Inspire movement which is a group of entrepreneurs and they wanted to look at lows and so – it’s on YouTube if you want to have a look at it – but it was actually university where you looked from the outside like a nervous breakdown but actually I don’t want to be too coy about it but it was a breakthrough, I was lucky enough to come apart a bit early on in my career because I was succeeding to the point, I think, to the Wayne Dyer point, I was succeeding but feeling very, very unhappy inside so I think that was the first time that the wheels came off. I appeared to fail but the turning point there was really actually reconnecting with my own ‘why’, understanding that darkness is part of wholeness. Actually all the best people, if I can use that word, have had ups and downs, the darkness, light, and shade, and I think that has actually been a wellspring, it looked like disaster but now looking back, it’s probably the reason we’re having this conversation because ever since all of my work has somehow been informed by that, when the very thing you’re most fearing happens, something amazing comes through, so I think that for me was a real turning point.

Well, I’ve changed the question here in my notes to the most significant low, it’s a wonderful example and I’ll check it out, and the message for people who might be in those situations is, I suppose, hold on and realize the stuff on the other side can be hugely magnetic and be hugely powerful going forward.

Yeah, hold on and talk. Particularly men, the silence – I do quite a lot of work with a group called Minds At Work who are destigmatizing depression in the workplace. It’s amazing how many men still think when they’re having a low that the best thing to do is be quite about it. Gents – that is not the best.

So where can people get in touch with you, David?

Well, I’d welcome that. is the simplest place. I’m really curious, I love to have conversations, if you’ve read the book and you want to talk more about it, I’m very open to chatting.

Super. We’ll put that in the show notes with the books with a couple of the references but also references to your group as well. So many, many thanks, David. As I said I was looking forward to this conversation, it’s exceeded my very high expectations so thanks for your time and look forward to keeping in touch.

Yes, see you at the next kink in the road as they say.

Thanks very much.

Pleasure, pleasure.


In this episode, we are joined by award-winning author, David Pearl, to discuss his career as a creative confidante and personal development advisor to a number of the world’s top CEO’s and organisations. David is a respected public and keynote speaker and is the founder of Pearl Group, Opera Circus, Lively Arts and Impropera, as well as the non-profit organisation, Street Wisdom.

What Was Covered

  • How looking at business meetings – what David calls “the engine of post-industrial life” – through a different lens, say a theatrical one, can unleash the creative power of bringing the group together
  • How storytelling can be used innovatively in leadership and how meaningful narratives can help to create meaning with business teams
  • The benefits to being open and accepting of past failures and how sharing these as a leader can have a positive impact on employees
  • The importance of self-introspection, understanding your past experience before future experiences, and how this leads to discovering your ‘why?’

Key Takeaways and Learnings

  • David’s philosophy that colleagues must ‘really meet, not nearly meet’ and how creativity is born in the space between us, not from us as individuals
  • The potential impact within stories at work – and how a compelling narrative can engage people far more than simply a set of facts
  • How re-framing low points as turning points in which maximum learning was achieved can help encourage talk and creative collaboration
  • How, as a leader, your own personal ‘why?’ should always be overlapping with the ‘why?’ of your business

Links and Resources Mentioned In This Episode:

Mark Bidwell

Mark Bidwell

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