June 4, 2014
Great leaders are storytellers. Consider the biblical character Solomon, who was regarded as the world’s most enlightened man solely due to his plentiful arsenal of stories. President Lincoln cemented his position as one of the most admired leaders of all time by eradicating slavery. He aligned people not by his analysis, but by his stories.
Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg inspired a whole movement of women to ‘lean in’ and aim for greater career heights by sharing her stories. Malala Yousafzai, who was gunned down by the Taliban for her determination to be educated, ensured the world’s commitment to her cause, by telling her story. Storytelling is the language of leadership.
All over the world human beings seek a wise person to tell them a story, to give them something to believe in and make them feel that they belong to something. At their core, our world history, our family history and all major world religions are simply a series of stories, emitted by a leader, and then retold.
Leaders of aboriginal tribes pass information from one generation to another through stories. They are the basis of their educational system, moulding values and creating community.
Additionally, most generals will attest that it isn’t the side with the strongest army that declares victory but rather the one with the most compelling story.
My Love of Stories
From the time I was little I loved reading stories and would hide under the covers with a flashlight to finish a chapter (and maybe another) long after my mother had decreed that “all lights had to be out”. Then, as now, I found that stories made me feel less alone and connected me to others as I empathized with their plight.
Stories opened new avenues for me, unlatching and swinging wide the gates fencing my belief system. I still remember the pain I felt for Heidi going to live with her crusty old grandfather, a recluse in the Swiss mountains, or the concern for the ugly duckling when all those swans were being so mean. They made me cry and these stories feel as real to me today as they did then.
It should not be a surprise that I built on this passion to create a successful career telling stories for a corporation. I loved sharing stories with investors of how we developed markets and overcame adversity to achieve success. Today, I tell personal stories of my working life to aide aspiring career women, hoping to minimize their time in the ‘school of hard knocks’.
I share stories to transform others, but also myself. Stories have always put seemingly random events into context, imbuing them with meaning. As Arianna Huffington wrote in her book “Thrive” stories offer a direct road map to our inner lives. “Humans are hardwired for narrative; we may be the only creatures that see our lives as part of a larger narrative”.
Stories Advance Your Career
Taking the inner journey through stories also helps in the external world. First, your story will help you get to know yourself better, allowing you to more confidently present your authentic self to the world. People are attracted to that. Secondly, by recounting a story of one of your accomplishments, it will build your confidence, encouraging you to climb an even bigger hill.
There is no better way for others to become aware of your strengths and improve their views of your leadership ability than by hearing your story. Women, especially need to be more bold in telling theirs. Achievement isn’t possible without the assistance of others and listening to their stories is a most pleasurable way to draw them into your network.
The best way for mentors to pass along information to their protégé is through stories. Typically, people resist advice but stories offer entertainment. They are the modern fable, full of teachable moments. The effective use of stories also helps leaders bring together a diverse group of people to find common ground. Such is the basis of forming a team.
To get ahead in your career you’ll need to take risks, which is bound to result in some disappointments. You’ll then need to ‘reposition’ your story, especially it’s ending. In the movie “Saving Mr. Banks” Walt Disney admitted to Mary Poppins’ author P. L. Travers, that writing a new ending is what saved him from ruminating on his unhappy childhood and one can’t argue with his success!
Telling Your Story
Stories are one of the most powerful communication tools and fortunately this skill can be developed and practiced. It starts by speaking to the heart, not to the head. Feelings are experiential, which is lasting. For this reason, people remember stories 22 times better than facts. TED Talk sensation Brene Brown says, “stories are just data with a soul.”
A good story also provides some levity and comic relief as humour unites people. Once moved by a story people will want to retell it to a friend so make it simple enough for them to do that by skipping unnecessary detail. Screenwriter Elmore Leonard gave some sage advice on this topic, “A story is real life with the boring parts left out”.
We all have a story and as poet Maya Angelou said, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you”. The first step is to discover the chain of events that comprises yours. In ancient mythology the events always follow a pattern: an ordinary boy or girl ventures on a quest, faces and overcomes many obstacles, is transformed and comes home to share the story.
Like mythology, your best stories will be ones where you face a challenge and it changes you. Audiences love hearing about a conflict resolved but that means that the teller must openly share their feelings and vulnerability. Many are uncomfortable exposing that to strangers but without doing so the story comes across as bragging.
I learned this by observing an effective CEO storyteller. He used facts only to back up his narrative and give it credibility. When he told a story he succinctly described his circumstances, how he felt, how he handled things and what he learned about himself in the process. People not only slowed down to listen, they were captivated. His use of stories afforded him great influence.
Your Story Creates Your Reality
No single story will define you, so assemble a collection of options for multiple audiences and situations. Telling them will not only change how people view you, it will change how you view yourself. Initially, you may not think of yourself as a leader but once you’ve started telling your stories, it will be easier to believe and realize. Your story creates your reality so make it good!
By telling your story, you’ll leave a legacy of people better able to handle their problems by hearing how you solved yours. Sharing your story is a service- let it guide you to your natural role as a leader on both your inner and outer journey.