Ancient civilizations used storytelling as a way to pass down legends to younger generations, reinforce beliefs, offer cautionary tales, amuse and entertain, and share dreams. Many times this was done around a fire, which would illuminate the environment, add physical warmth to the psychological intimacy, and hopefully keep wild animals at bay. The fire provided a focus for listeners and speakers to intensely visualize what was shared. This ritual created trust and credibility.
Storytelling is a powerful way for leaders to share a vision, as stories usually combine the elements of pathos (emotion), logos (logic), and ethos (credibility) – these were the Greek philosopher Aristotle’s means of audience persuasion. Tales of lore are also easier to re-tell than data and statistics – consider it qualitative data (i.e. descriptive, yet non-numerical information) rather than quantitative data (i.e. the hard numbers).
A study conducted at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania found that leaders who are able to connect in a personal way are indeed more effective. Those leaders who share a personal experience relevant to the situation at hand typically establish meaningful connections. For example, instead of didactically managing someone as incorrectly taking action on the job, s/he could say, “Well, I remember when I was in the same difficult situation…” and share wisdom, empathy, and understanding. This makes the power of storytelling a management tool. Your story is your impact.
The “Story of Me”
Everybody has a story. Who were your parents? What inspired you about them? From where did you come? How many siblings did you have? What were your family dynamics like?* What were the peaks and valleys of your adolescence? What have you learned about those successes and challenges? How have they contributed to being who you are today as a leader? These questions are important to first address in a journal, or with a coach, just to see and hear a thread of how one’s journey created the strength of character that makes you uniquely you – your competitive advantage.
Many people may argue: How is that relevant? Isn’t all that information on the verge of psychobabble? Personal understanding and overcoming triggers that take “power away” makes leaders perform more effectively. Once grasped, timing for delivery is critical and is situationally ascribed.
Many of today’s professionals in the USA shy away from sharing too much personal background at work (e.g. the résumé vs the CV), yet sharing relevant pieces of information (at appropriate times) keeps leaders better connected in their spheres of influence. Naturally, if triggers from unresolved issues produce effects that surface dysfunctional behavior in the workplace (e.g. Mommy Dearest issues and an estranged sister may lead a male manager to subconsciously practice misogyny and seek out only docile female direct reports who serve as acolytes to his power needs)*, then this requires the help of a therapist and HR should render him/her as an Independent Contributor – free of direct reports. Father of Emotional Intelligence (EQ), Daniel Goleman says, “…people who cannot marshal some control over their emotional life fight inner battles that sabotage their ability for focused work and clear thought.” In other words, conquer whatever emotional struggles are holding you back by focusing on which aspects from the ordeal have made you stronger.
Drawing from Inspiration
People who inspire us have typically overcome challenges that are similar to our own. Historical figures, or fictional heroes, who we admire typically have traits to which we aspire to have for ourselves. They are analogous examples which, through our admiration, communicate to ourselves and to others who we are and what is relevant to us.
One of my favorite books of all time is The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho. Coelho is a Chief Storyteller whose book is used as required reading at some business schools. In this story (SPOILER ALERT), he relates how the main character sought a treasure that ended up being right from where he began his journey, and yet he wouldn’t have recognized it and become the man he became, if he hadn’t had the courage to seek it in the first place. Leaders exemplify courage, curiosity, determination, et al, which lead to growth and success. It’s like Steve Jobs, founder of Apple, said, “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards.” (Although early 19th century Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard said this about 150 years earlier, “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”). Treasures are found with effort.
“And, when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.”
― Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist
Develop your own storytelling ability.
Rossina Gil, MSOD, Leadership & Organization Development Practitioner, dog-lover, proud parent, quasi-cook, runner, people-watcher, prankster, egalitarian, and confessed chocoholic. She was raised on Bionic Woman, Wonder Woman, Pippi Longstocking, and by her mom.
* Who you were in your original home may very well be how you show up at work.
Casady, Karen. Communications Plus. http://www.communicationsplus-la.com/powerofstorytelling.htm
Goleman, Daniel. Emotional Intelligence. New York, NY: Bantam Books. 1995.
Jobs, Steve. Stanford Commencement Speech, 2005.