How Leaders Can Become Storytellers
Updated: Jun 22, 2020
Part 4 of 6
To fully harness the power of story for one’s organization, a leader must take certain steps and develop certain skills. A leader must 1) listen to the stories of his people, 2) nurture an environment conducive to storytelling, and 3) allow the people to see their organization as a protagonist moving through its own narrative.
The worst thing that a leader can do is to impose a narrative on the organization. This is called propaganda. Although there are leaders who were quite successful in doing so, this is not a narrative that will truly last. Each of us is a living story. Every member of any organization is a protagonist moving along his or her own plot. If a leader imposes a narrative on a group of people, it is only a matter of time when they will reject the narrative and let their own narratives take over. What a leader wants to do is draw out the stories from the ground and find themes and plot points that intersect with each other so he can facilitate the building of a collective narrative.
The first storytelling skill that the leader must hone is listening. To become a master storyteller, one must understand how an audience consumes stories. And the best way to do this is to become one.
The art of listening is a lot harder than it sounds. This involves more than shutting up, staring at the eyes of the speaker, and making affirmative sounds and gestures. This requires the leader to be present in storytelling spaces of the organization.
But where are these spaces?
When your team goes out to lunch, they will share a meal and stories. When they stand-up to get water or coffee at the pantry, they will make small talk and most likely gossip. When they take a short cigarette break, they will want to unload their thoughts to someone at the smoking pocket. The five minute elevator ride from the lobby to the office is also a good storytelling space. These storytelling spaces abound in the organization. The leader must leave the confines of his executive office and be always listening to the stories of his people. He must always make himself an available audience for his storytellers.
Another part of the listening skill is the leader’s ability to break down and identify the narrative pillars of the stories he listens to. A story has three fundamental parts. To simplify it, let’s call them 1) the protagonist, 2) the ultimate desire, and 3) the obstacle to the desire. The key to understanding the protagonist (or the lead character in the story, which in this case is the storyteller himself) is to identify his desire and pain (obstacle). What does he want? And what is bugging him? Once the leader is able to distill these from the various stories in the organization, it will become easier for him to facilitate the building of a collective narrative.
However, the leader will have no stories to listen to if the people do not feel they can share their personal stories to someone they work for. The storytelling spaces in the organization must be conducive to storytelling. This is the next thing that the leader must do--he must nurture the storytelling spaces so that they encourage members of the organization to share their own pains and desires generously.
How can leaders nurture an environment that is conducive to storytelling?