Those who can tell stories can change the way their listeners view the world. In the process, they can also change the way they view the world. In Telling the Story, Geoff Mead defines narrative leadership as something that goes beyond increasing profits, market share, and share holder value. Rather, it is about understanding the scope and context of the world in which businesses or groups operate. It is about considering the purpose and intention behind leadership.
Why Stories Matter
People use imagination to create reality. When they smell something baking, they might conjure up an image of chocolate chip cookies. When they hear a bang, they might think of a gunshot. Great stories tap into the listeners’ feelings and imaginations. Both telling and listening to stories is integral to being human. They play a big role in how people make sense of the world, how they relate to others, and how they understand themselves. Stories play a major role in three main areas of the human condition:
1. Sense of self: If people ask themselves who they are, the answer is inevitably connected to stories. For example, to say a person is a mother leads to stories about her children.
2. Relationships: People get to know one another through their stories. This is also true for organizations, groups, and communities.
3. World view: People view the world through the lens of their own imaginations. Sometimes the prevailing “big stories” that are believed by most should be questioned. For example, in the early 1970s, most believed in the idea that the earth’s resources were limitless. An oil embargo then put that view into question and the prevailing idea became that energy should be conserved. Another example is the idea of finding careers for life. Those who grew up after World War II expected to find jobs where they could work until retirement. That story was accepted as reality. The current economy does not support that story and politicians and others are jockeying to define the story of what is next.
Leaders who want to make the most of the present and shape the future must consider the stories they tell themselves about the world-including those they question and those they do not. For those who want to change themselves, their organizations, or society as a whole, changing the stories they tell themselves and others is critical.
Although it has been frequently studied, it can be hard to define leadership. People often think of leaders as heroes. They believe good leaders are those who charge in and make positive things happen. However, true leadership is more than that. It requires participation from everyone. Good leaders are those who can take a situation and work with others to make meaning of it. This happens in organizations, but it also happens in communities and relationships as well. If good leadership is about making meaning, and storytelling is the way people create and understand their situations, then it becomes clear that storytelling is the heart and soul of leadership.
Narrative leadership is a form of meaning-making leadership. It is a new way of looking at leadership that is open to everyone who wants to make a difference in their own lives, their organizations, and their communities. With issues such as global climate change, it is time for leaders to take a hard look at how they define leadership and prepare for change.
Stories in Our Bones
Storytelling is a part of the human condition. To understand how it became so, it is necessary to understand how the human brain processes stories and how stories have emerged as part of human history. According to research by cognitive scientist Jerome Bruner, the human mind takes two approaches when constructing reality and ordering experience. The first is the logico-rational, or paradigmaticmode, which gives a person the ability to think in abstract concepts and search for universal truths (such as the scientific method). The other is the narrative mode, which deals in stories.
In the study of storytelling, there have been three key scientific discoveries that are important to understanding narrative leadership:
- Studies by psychologists have shown that humans have a need to make sense of themselves and the world around them.
- Research into mirror neurons in the brain has concluded that when people see or hear others going through experiences, their brains respond by experiencing it vicariously.
- Neuroscience has shown that the human brain has evolved to read and project emotions.
Oral storytelling goes back thousands of years, beginning with the Epic of Gilgamesh. Listening to a speaker can bring unity to a group as relationships can form with the speaker, others in the group, as well as with the material the speaker is delivering.
The World of Stories
There are many kinds of stories, but in general people tend to feel more comfortable with certain topics and styles. In order to be confident and authentic, narrative leaders should determine whether they are naturally drawn to one of three kinds of stories: fact, fiction, or fantasy.
To determine which style is the best for them, leaders should choose a topic, such as their shoes, and tell a story about them to a partner. The first time they tell the story they should stick to the facts, such as where they bought the shoes. The second time, they should tell the story with elements that are made up (for example, they could say they got them from a secret society of shoemakers). Finally, they should tell the story with elements that are impossible (for example, they got the shoes from a fairy godmother that turned straw into shoes). After telling each kind of story, leaders should think about which felt the most comfortable to tell.
How Stories Work
Engaging storytelling features several key elements that almost anyone can learn. The single most important thing is for storytellers to remember that the best ones avoid merely telling their listeners a story. Instead, they show them. To understand the difference, leaders should try the following exercise. First, they should list all the reasons why it is a good idea to travel by train (it is good for the environment, saves money, etc.). Next, they should remember their most enjoyable train trip and describe it. The first list tells the listeners why it is good to travel by train. The second list showsthem by evoking emotions and tapping in to their imaginations. It creates memorable images and connects the storytellers and listeners on deeper levels.
Information and argument are important, but because they ask for agreement, they are often not enough to inspire people to act. People do not see stories as being true or false. Stories invite listeners to share in experiences and can inspire empathy and understanding.
The Art of Narrative Leadership
Narrative leadership is comprised of three interrelated practices:
- Know thyself.
- Only connect.
- Stand for something.
These practices can be thought of as a tree. “Know thyself” is the roots, the trunk symbolizes “stand for something,” and the branches and leaves represent “only connect.” A tree needs strong roots to grow and stand strong. The roots also feed a sturdy trunk, and an extensive canopy of branches and leaves are needed for the tree to stay healthy. Leadership also grows organically. Leaders who strengthen their understanding of themselves strengthen their roots. When they connect with others, they better understand the world. These two strengths help leaders stand for their beliefs.
Leadership stories that have the most impact are those that are both simple and authentic. What makes narrative leadership difficult is that it requires speakers to acknowledge who they really are and to be vulnerable. Of course, leaders should be aware of narrative dysfunction, which can occur if stories are inappropriate or poorly told, or if the leaders do not live up to their stories.
Leaders who want to embrace narrative leadership must first understand the stories they tell themselves and how those stories shape their views of themselves and the world. For example, leaders might think back on stories from childhood in which they believed themselves as either the heros or the helpless victims, and then examine how those stories might reinforce certain views they have of themselves. Narrative leaders can consider how the stories help or hinder them and how they could be retold to open more possibilities. By reframing the stories, they are taking charge of the way they see things and the way they are seen.
Leaders who would like to become the authors of their own lives should try the following exercises:
*Tell the stories of what they first wanted to be when they grew up. Leaders should consider if they are doing what they wanted to do and what it would take to live those stories more fully.
*Think back to an early time when they acted as leaders (before age 16) and tell those stories. These early experiences can show leaders their natural strengths and weaknesses.
*Write autobiographies of their progress as leaders. This helps them understand their dominant logic and how it has developed over time.
Storytelling is a connection between the storytellers and listeners. It is important for leaders to earn the chance to have their stories heard. To do this, they must listen to others in addition to telling their own stories. Narrative leaders can also connect with listeners by evolving stories to show how they have been affected by the stories of others. One way for leaders to connect with their audiences is to create structure by hosting story circles, in which groups of people are invited to take turns telling stories in response to a trigger statement. This works best with groups of 5-8 people sitting so that everyone can see one another. By sharing stories, the group comes to understand one another and their points of view on a more personal level.
Connections are formed through listening to stories as much as they are through telling them. It is also important for leaders to listen to all stories in their organizations. Some stories are louder than others. It can be easy for groups and ideas to be marginalized, but true creativity comes from a diversity of ideas.
Stand for Something
Another important component of narrative leadership is telling authentic, compelling stories that connect listeners with worthwhile causes. Leaders must believe in and embody these stories. President Barack Obama is an example of a leader who used storytelling successfully. In his first presidential campaign, he told his own identity story and wove it into the bigger picture of the American Dream. He used positive language and metaphors to illustrate his aspirations for the future of the country.
Narrative leaders must also understand, however, that powerful stories are products of their times. Leaders who cling to the same stories over time will lose touch with their audiences. The most powerful stories ring true with the listeners. People are more interested in stories that are based in reality and acknowledge difficulties and struggles. Iconic stories that explain how leaders came to their values or senses of purpose are also powerful tools. When calling for change in an organization, narrative leaders can use stories that explain that “we are all in this together.”
So You Want to Tell a Story
When leaders tell stories in order to influence others (rather than simply to understand themselves or to connect with listeners) delivery is essential. The first aspect of delivery is repertoire. Composition (putting the story together) and performance are also important. To build a repertoire, narrative leaders should answer the following questions:
*Should I tell a story? Stories can be very helpful at times when attempts to persuade or inform fall short. Leaders should also clarify why they are telling a story.
*When should I tell a story? Stories are helpful for leaders in honoring achievements, focusing on purposes, encouraging good practices, and anticipating changes, among others.
*What kinds of stories work best? In order to work well, stories must fit the needs of the situations, the audiences, and the tellers.
*Where do I find stories to tell? There are five places to find stories:
- Handed down by organizations.
- Personal experiences.
- Other people’s experiences.
- Fictional stories.
- Borrowing well-known stories.
A Good Story Well Told
When it comes to structuring stories for maximum impact, it is important for storytellers to add enough detail to spark the listeners’ imaginations so that they can feel the experience. There are several elements to good stories, which can be remembered with the mnemonic, CASTLE:
*Characters: Listeners must know details about the characters in order to care about what happens to them.
*Action: A list of the events, told in order, is key to confidence in storytelling.
*Structure: Each story needs a beginning that sets up the situation, a middle that provides the majority of the events, and an end that provides a satisfying conclusion.
*Texture: Details on sights, sounds, smells, etc. help make stories more real for listeners.
*Language: Direct speech helps illustrate stories. It is better to repeat exactly what was said than to simply report about what was said.
*Emotions: Stories become real for listeners when the stories inspire them to go on emotional journeys.
On Your Feet
Telling stories is a lot like driving cars. People must practice in order to be good at it. The International School of Storytelling has developed several exercises leaders can do to hone their storytelling skills and build their confidence. One exercise calls for the storytellers to tell the stories as if they were gossip. Other techniques involve asking the listeners to give feedback on the following:
*Images and feelings.
*Impact on the listeners.
*The heart of the stories.
*Beginnings and endings.
*Action and description.
Narrative leaders should also practice other aspects of storytelling, such as:
*Introducing the story: It is a good idea to give people a signal that a story is coming by saying something like, “Let me provide an example.”
*Holding attention: Storytellers can hold listeners’ attention by working on their presence through breathing, body language, and eye contact.
*Being heard: By checking the acoustics of the room, projecting their voices, and being confident in their stories, narrative leaders can make sure they are heard.
*Using the right language: Stories are easiest to hear when they feature simple language and plain words.
TIME AND CHANGE
Time and Narrative
Stories can be used to help make sense of the past, present, and future. Stories from the past generally fall into three categories:
1. Appreciative storytelling: These stories are based on the premise that the best way to create the future is to learn from the positive aspects of the past.
2. Learning history: Developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the 1990s, this is a way to use stories with lots of detail for reflection and learning in a group setting.
3. Graphic history: This method maps a group’s recollections and reflections graphically.
In order to tell stories routed in the present, leaders must let go of stories and assumptions from the past. Modern society is focused on the future, and because it is not a set moment in time, it is easier to tell stories about it than the present. By using detail and feeling, narrative leaders can make an imagined future real for listeners and for themselves.
Storytelling for Change
To change something, people must first imagine something different. This can be difficult because many people are very attached to the stories of the past. One way to help people accept change is by reframing-using language to create a positive spin. For example, the term “anti-abortion” is reframed as “pro-life.” In fact, neuroscientists claim that people’s brains can actually become rewired after listening to new stories and new language repeatedly. Frames and stories are not neutral and always support points of view. They can illustrate change in the following ways:
*Green shoots: These stories show the start of something that could grow into something more. They present a positive image of the future.
*Over the rainbow: Another technique is to tell stories about other places in which the desired change has already taken place.
*Future perfect: These stories imagine likely future scenarios, and then decide what steps are needed to get there.
*Self, us, now: When calling for change, leaders must show the connections between themselves, the community represented, and the change.
Life in the Fast Lane
As the pace of life increases, people’s focus narrows. They move from deadline to deadline with no time for reflection. However, recent research in cognitive science confirms that people function best when they use both quick thinking and reflection. The Internet and social media offer more ways than ever to get a message across. Narrative leaders understand that messages are more important than the media used to deliver them.
When considering storytelling on a global level, it is important to remember that stories are both universal and culturally specific. It is important for a leader to consider the audience, rather than rely on stereotypes. The following are general guidelines on cultural preferences:
*West (North America) prefers pragmatic stories of heroic individualism.
*North (Scandinavia, United Kingdom, Germany, etc.) has a more rational approach and favors case studies and learning histories.
*East (India, China, Japan, etc.) is more spiritual and prefers allegories and myths.
*South (South America, Africa) tends to favor folktales that speak to its relational, feeling culture.
Stories can be a force for good or harm. For example, companies use their brands to tell stories of who they are. These stories may or may not be grounded in the truth. Narrative leaders must take responsibility for the stories that they tell.
The time has come for leaders to consider the larger questions-the social and environmental consequences of the decisions people make. It is not easy to consider the big issues facing humanity, but it is the responsibility of narrative leaders to decide what they truly believe in, and then use stories to make a difference to spur the imaginations and move the hearts of those around them.