Leadership Imperative: Storytelling

Christine Moore, PMP, CPF - September 2011

Why Leaders Need to be Storytellers

We search for leadership everyday. We watch and listen to people at work, in our community, and in our family. When someone steps forward and rises to the occasion with a leader-ful act, we notice and we listen. Experiencing great leadership is inspirational and if we are inspired we just might follow. Otherwise, we are apt to stay put.

If we want to be great leaders we need to find ways to touch those we hope to lead. Leadership is about the relationships between people who want to lead and those who may or may not want to go with them. Storytelling is a rich and highly effective medium to establish and nurture these relationships.

Striving to be a great leader can be deeply rewarding and equally daunting. If leadership is about relationships, does that mean we must establish a meaningful relationship with every person we're trying to lead? Yes—this is the daunting part. However a meaningful relationship doesn't always have to entail one-on-one contact everyday. Storytelling gives us another medium for the relationships with those we lead. We can touch many people with a single story and we can reach some we never could have without story. Add storytelling to your leadership skills and you add another dimension in which to connect to the people you want to lead.

The Story Dimension

In the story dimension we invite people in, we show them something, and we let them come to their own conclusions. People like to think for themselves, and generally they value their own conclusions more than ours. By telling a story rather than relying solely on facts or giving directives, we are respecting our audience's own conclusions—this breaks down their defenses. With their defenses down, people are able to be convinced by someone they already trust—themselves.

Storytelling is a pull strategy and thus avoids the counter punch of a push strategy (you give me a fact, I tell you why it's wrong). As we listen to stories we instinctively attempt to relate to them, to find meaning within the context being presented and link it to what we already know and believe. What's so helpful to us as leaders, is that when people connect to our stories, they also make a connection to us and we establish a relationship.

Five Opportunities to Add Story to Your Leadership Practice

Help People Know You
The foundation of leadership is credibility (a form of trust). We can't expect people to allow themselves to be influenced if they don't know us well enough to decide if they trust us or not. Stories are a great way to let people know who we are. In fact, if there's something specific we want people to know about us we can use a story to tell them. Why not simply tell them? Why not skip the story? Because telling them is not nearly as effective as demonstrating. In the story dimension our audience will be pulled in and search for a reason to believe us. For a story example, click here.

Relay Your Experience
One way humans learn is through vicarious experiences—that is, through the experiences of others. However, for this learning method to be effective the vicarious experience must be relevant to one's own situation. If I am trying to help a new project manager learn the importance of clear scope definition I could come up with a dozen supporting facts that they may or may not agree with (or understand) at face value. However, if I tell a story about how unclear scope definition delayed one of my projects and include the relevant facts in a context they can imagine could happen on their own project, they will believe me and see the importance themselves. While instructing a 3-day project management workshop I will tell approximately 20 stories, and they are frequently and consistently pointed out in evaluations as having significant impact. Think about your own experiences and what aspects could be beneficial to those you need to lead. Create a set of stories that when told will demonstrate points you want to convey. Be sure your stories are embedded in a context your audience will recognize and then practice them so you're ready when the opportunity to tell one comes up.

Inspire Vision
Leaders are supposed to inspire vision—according to Kouzes & Posner's Leadership Challenge, they should "Inspire a Shared Vision." This is probably the most obvious place for storytelling in leadership. To tell a vision story that really inspires, imagine that you and your audience have been projected into the future far enough that your vision has become reality. What do you see? Think about the problems your audience faces today that have no place in your vision and describe what is better in the absence of those problems. If there are specific objectives you need your audience to meet, incorporate them into your vision story. I know a project sponsor who did this at the beginning of every project he started. He would tell us it was some specific date in the future and how the results of our project had impacted the organization. He would explain in detail how customer service reps were able to do their jobs better, or how the shipping department was spending less time tracking down late orders. These specifics made the vision possible, we could see it, and because we cared about the details he was describing we could share his vision.

Gain Perspective
DeWitt Jones, a one time National Geographic photographer, said "If we can't learn to change lenses we're trapped." It's easy for people to become trapped in a particular way of thinking or doing, and as leaders it's sometimes up to us to help people see another perspective. When attempting to show someone a completely different side of a problem a storyteller starts from a place where perspectives agree—where a common belief or value exists. From here a story can describe in detail examples from a different perspective. We use this tactic with project stakeholders who have completely different perspectives and are stuck in their own view of the world. We give the stakeholders time and space to tell stories that demonstrate the view from their side. The important thing is that the stakeholders tell stories that convey the context they operate in so others who usually look through a different lens get a peek from a different point of view.

Develop People
Great leaders make those around them better. One way to accomplish this is to tell stories about ways of being. If we want to develop collaborative teams, tell stories of how collaboration helped other teams be successful. Tell stories that demonstrate collaboration on a team. Ask your team to describe collaboration efforts they've heard of or witnessed. Ways of Being stories invite others to try on a behavior and gives them examples to follow.

Create, Practice, Tell

The only way to successfully incorporate this imperative leadership skill is to practice creating and telling stories. The creating part is important. Start with a situation in which you think storytelling will be beneficial and take time developing the story. Your stories must be authentic. Reflect on your own experiences and others you are close to and distill the truths and meaning from them. It's ok to tell someone else's story. What's not ok is to pretend the story happened to you. Authenticity is transparent, and so are fakers.

When you have the main points, practice telling your story out loud (even if there's no one around to hear you). It doesn't have to be scripted—in fact it's better if it isn't. Don't be afraid to reuse the same stories; in fact, pulling them out in different situations is one way to hone their content and your delivery.

Here are some books you may find helpful in learning more about storytelling:

  • The Story Factor by Annette Simmons
  • Wake Me Up When the Data is Over by Lori Silverman
  • The Leader's Guide to Storytelling by Stephen Denning

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