Allegations that Central Asia Institute guru Greg Mortenson fabricated parts of his bestselling book “Three Cups of Tea,” and may have exploited the charity’s funds for personal use, bring up serious questions about the level of truth we expect from our leaders, especially in the world of development.
Mortenson brought the issue of girls’ education in Afghanistan and Pakistan to the forefront of mainstream culture with a compelling story of getting lost while descending K2 and then stumbling into a remote Pakistani mountain village. The villagers nursed him back to health, the story goes, and Mortenson was so inspired by their poverty and hospitality that he devoted his life to building much-needed schools for girls in the region.
It’s a powerful “leadership narrative” that inspired thousands to buy Mortenson’s book and support his charity. But it may have been too good to be true, and many of Mortenson’s supporters feel they were duped.
But how truthful do we really expect this kind of leadership narrative to be? At what point on the spectrum between a robotic retelling of factual events and total fabrication do we draw the line?
My wife and colleague Sarah Stuteville tells a killer story at a party. The women in her family are so notorious for exaggeration in their storytelling that there’s a joke about the “Stuteville reduction factor,” by which you should adjust the outrageous events in a story they tell to get the bare facts of what really happened.
But despite this (or more likely because of it), as a journalist she scrupulously adheres to the truth — almost to a fault.
She recognizes there’s room for exaggeration in some realms, but not in others.
But by its nature, a leadership narrative bridges those two worlds — and this may have been the key to Mortenson’s big mistake. He started out telling an exaggerated story to people he was close to, and it worked so well he couldn’t stop. In today’s Google-mediated collective memory trap, no one’s narrative is ever really their own once it is available on the Web. Greg Mortenson and his advisers should have been aware of this and taken steps to correct his narrative long ago. But if they had, he probably wouldn’t have made it as far as he did, to the top of the bestseller list, or to actually doing some good in the world.
So the more appropriate question may be, at what point of success and notoriety do we begin expecting the truth?
But he was encouraged by a culture that demands compelling storytelling to get us engaged with an issue.
Case in point: Have you ever heard of the Citizens Foundation?
It’s a charity that has built more than 700 schools across Pakistan (Mortenson’s group claims to support 170 schools). The local Seattle chapter (mostly Microsofties who’ve relocated to the Northwest from Pakistan) raised enough in a single night of fundraising recently to build five new schools.
Compared to “Three Cups of Tea,” they have a pretty flat leadership narrative: Wealthy Pakistanis decide they should give something back to fix the broken education system in their country. They may not get much media coverage, but donors are attracted to their longevity, scrupulous reputation and proven results.
Real development doesn’t usually have a great narrative arc. It’s about recognizing systemic problems and patiently trying to solve them, one step at a time. If what we’re looking for are heroes with amazing stories, we shouldn’t be too surprised when those stories turn out to be lies.
Alex Stonehill is a journalist and Multimedia Storyteller in Residence at the MCDM.