Leadership: In search of a true story

The management world is suddenly awash with tales about just how effective storytelling is as core leadership competency.
The thinking goes something like this. Storytelling, like the opposable thumb, differentiates humans from the myriad of other species that inhabit the earth. That at least is an explanation Auckland’s robust advertising and ideas man, Mike Hutcheson, offers in his foreword to local author Wade Jackson’s recently released book Stories at Work.
By telling stories, particularly organisational ones, we’ve learned to “coordinate and galvanise collective action for common purpose”, Hutcheson adds. Jackson’s view is less anthropological and rather more germane to this column. His book simply tells leaders how to leverage the power and impact of storytelling to get faster and better organisational results. Fair enough.
Stories, Jackson writes, are like oxygen. We don’t, on day-to-day basis, much notice its presence but, try living without it. By telling and sharing stories, we make connections that help us to understand who we are and to make sense of the world around us. And that, of course, is the essence of his argument and this column.
These are, for raft of increasingly obvious reasons, challenging times. Leaders that use narrative effectively are more likely to be listened to. The issues confronting enterprise, economies and communities are pretty complex. Powerpoint presentations packed with figures and formulae won’t cut it if leaders want individuals to take the information on board. On the other hand, stories that explain where and why we are where we are, and point out the road ahead, encourage listeners to listen and, maybe, even write their own happier endings.
The commercial world’s best known advocate of tusitala leadership, American writer and consultant Stephen Denning, thinks leadership is about connecting people’s “hearts and minds”. Through business narrative, storytelling leaders help others to “imagine new perspectives”. Storytelling can, he believes, help leaders to “communicate who they are or what their company is, transmit values, share knowledge, tame the organisational grapevine and create vision for what’s to come”.
The relevance and facilitation of narrative-based leadership is linked to the evolving drift from transactional to transformative leadership, and to the explosive impact of social media. Transformational leadership is about people, emotions, values, standards, ethics and connecting with the future. Social media, meanwhile, is radically transforming the way in which organisations and individuals communicate.
Transformational leaders, says Denning, are values and ideas driven. They motivate followers to act for the common good and, in the process, end up changing both themselves and their followers. The world’s political, economic, financial, resource management, environment and organisational leadership over the past 50 to 100 years, suggest transactional leadership has successfully dominated business, politics and just about everything else. Leaders, if they are going to tell true stories in future, will need to find new scripts of equally popular appeal.
We might need more transformational leaders to effect change in organisational priorities, political policies and social disparity, but the new currency is not risk free. The integrity of the teller, not the words of the narrative, determines whether particular transformation is for the best or worst reasons. Leaders, therefore, must understand what the long-term impacts of their stories are, no matter how bewitching the short-term story.
Storytelling is, and always has been, an effective leadership tool. If its use is to become more widespread and its power more effectively exploited, listeners must be able to differentiate between heroes and villains – of the telling, not just the plot.
In his leadership book Deep Change, Robert Quinn calls transformational leadership process. As the individual grows, so does his or her leadership influence and competency. Leaders, therefore, must be constantly self aware and work to become the leader they aspire to be. That’s fine, so long as their aspirations are aligned with the common good and the community’s true needs.
As New Zealand slides gracelessly toward next month’s general election, the stark and sad reality of just how politics brings the worst out in some aspiring leaders whose stories go far beyond the pale, is there for all to read. Boobs on bikes can’t hold G string to some of the whores on the hustings.
True leaders don’t, as Denning notes, lead because they expect something in return. “They lead because they have something to give.” If they get something back, it should be contingent event and not the goal. “They are relatively ego free,” he adds.
A government or an organisation led by ego-free individuals! Now wouldn’t that make cracker of story? M

Reg Birchfield is NZ Management’s consulting editor and writer-at large. [email protected]

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