Narratives of & by the Leader

September 25, 2018

I left the question of the role of the leader in story telling open in yesterday’s post. My contention remains that in anything involving change, actions generally speak louder than words. But there is a time and a place for story telling. However I want to make a distinction here before anecdotal enhancement and story telling. There are a few leaders who gifted performers and story tellers but its not a core leadership skill. A lot of people get by through presentations laying out what happened, what needs to happen and so on. Often people just want that, they need to understand the direction of travel or objectives and they are not looking to be entertained in the process. It’s always worth remembering that story-telling has a double meaning in English and the negative one is more likely to be deployed against someone in a leadership position. Oh s/he is telling stories again is more likely the conversation post event than S/he is a wonderful story teller.

But there are ways of going about this. Some of the techniques I developed (and teach) follow (and I am sure there are others):

  1. First and foremost, returning to an earlier theme, we’d like more of these and fewer of those allows for more flexibility and adaptability than a single story. Using a few anecdotes that are negative coupled with another cluster than shift things in the right direction works. By having several anecdotes you increase the chance or resonance with the audience and you avoid the danger of a single story becoming a recipe (one of criticisms of Most Significant Change there but that is for another day). Multiple anecdotes also demonstrate that the leader is listening, a single story more flags up that they want to be heard.
  2. Many moons ago I developed a basic template based on the Water Engineer’s Story which we use to improve communication.  It involves a workshop based approach in which teams of people assemble anecdotal data into a template and tell and retell it to different audiences until it becomes natural.  I often show films between each round with a recording of a script writer talking about the scene; the purpose is to give people some ideas.  Note here we don’t teach story telling, we take people through a process by which they can communicate more effectively.  At the first major event where I used the technique we ended up with 100 executives able to communicate a core message, but each communication pathway was different and authentic to that executives own pathway – no powerpoint.
  3. Retelling ironic and self-debricating stories about their own past.  Niall FitzGerald as CEO of Unilver who I worked with over a couple of years always used to tell people of a disastrous mistake he made made early on his career. Working with Stuart, then CEO of Lend Lease we found the Now you’ve lost your first crane story.  The story team in IBM UK which I formed (Sharon, Fiona, the two Nicks and others) used actors to create a story for the same company which once performed spread virally (we picked it up two years later in China on another project) because it was concrete, real, cynical and educational.  

Of course they may be a role of the inspirational the story. Kennedy’s Moon speech is worth remembering:

We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too. 

But remember this was in the context of falling behind in the space race and it was from a gifted orator. Trump’s Make American Great Again works in a similar way. We need to be cautious here. Inspiration works in many ways and I get really fed up of story events in which people assume that narrative work of itself is wonderful, inspirational and so on. In the history of humanity story has been weaponised as often for evil as it has for good. Small things building to sustainable change is better than a high risk inspirational goal. We remember the successes and forget the failures …..



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