Why do we struggle so with telling stories? Kids don’t struggle in this regard, and perhaps nor do we when with friends, around a meal, in a pub or over a braai (or barbeque for the less initiated). The practice of storytelling is central in any culture with the Hawaiians using a magical phrase, ‘talk story’ – to capture the importance of storytelling in their context.

But assemble a group of adults or leaders around a board room table and story telling can be as painful as extracting teeth from a pit-bull. And as dangerous! Perhaps the problem lies not in the subject but in the context. The ‘work’ context – apart from the ‘water-cooler’ meetings or other informal times and spaces, simply does not invite storytelling. Perhaps we have been too deeply programmed to believe that when it comes to the formal places and spaces within our working lives, there can be no room for storytelling. Of course the irony is that stories do exist – they are always there it is just that in this context, they sit under the surface avoiding detection. This may be the case partly because there might be the uneasy feeling and unspoken belief that such a pursuit is really better left in the playground. And so it is, that in the realm where business-speak rules, stories have no rightful place, they have no voice.

But this needs to change.

In the not too distant future storytelling and leadership will become synonymous concepts, comfortable bedfellows in the corporate context and lexicon. Leaderships chief responsibility is to connect the context, the knowledge of self and others, with the moment – and then to be able to articulate this intersection and enable everyone to make sense of it. There is nothing more powerful to do this than a story. Howard Gardner, in his book Leading Minds: An Anatomy of leadership, writes that, “A key – perhaps the key – to leadership is the effective communication of a storyâ€?. Stories are powerful and be they official or unofficial, true or false, leaders cannot ignore them nor can afford to be excluded from the process.

Much work needs to be done in understanding, positioning and using stories within the corporate context. Leaders who do this work create a powerful tool in their endeavour to craft a healthy corporate environment, one in which their people and their work can flourish. They are the leaders who are able to build enough trust in a team so that people are prepared to know and be known.

So lets ‘play’ a bit with ‘story’ by using the letters of the word to explore some of the concepts and some of the practical implications of what it is we mean when we ‘talk story’. What are the ‘signposts’ the word ‘story’ offers us in pursuit of savvy leadership?

The ‘S’ signpost:

Stories Sustain organisational culture. This can be either positive or negative depending on the prevailing conditions within the corporate environment. I recall leading a leadership / storytelling workshop with an international company whose brand is synonymous with healthy fruit and vegetables. They were passionate about their brand and had spend long hours ensuring that their values were more than words hanging on the wall, but were rather something that was lived throughout the company in both the best of times and the worst of times. Inviting the telling of stories is one way to build a case and supply evidence to determine the gap between the desired values and reality. It is something of a litmus test for any corporate environment. Naturally one needs a ‘safe environment’ in order to surface the authentic stories and the presence of leadership in this process can either serve as a deterrent or a help. In this case leadership was present and so I watched with interest to see what impact their presence would have on the process. What emerged were heartfelt accounts of how the values had repeatedly been lived out in diverse settings and in multiple ways. Many of the stories took the leadership present by surprise and I know that had I been in their shoes that day, I would have felt a deep sense of pride in what was shared. The company that called itself ‘family’ provided ample evidence that day that use of such an ambitious descriptive was not unduly merited.

The many stories told in the course of the workshop sustained and reinforced a corporate culture that was the result of intentional effort. Savvy leadership had devoted both time and space to reinforce, build, entrench and test their culture. It proved to be time well spent.

The ‘T’ signpost:

Stories are Tribal. So are the clusters we encounter every day as we walk into the office. The stories that are told – and how they are told, will reveal much about the tribe to which you belong. The need for belonging is fundamental and tribes are the resultant expression of this most basic of needs. Desmond Morris wrote about the ‘soccer tribe’ which is one of societies easiest to see examples of tribal behaviour. Tribes have their own unique belonging criteria – their war cries, rituals, colours and behaviours. They engender long-term loyalty and generate unquestioned inclusion irrespective of context. Understanding this reality is important work for any leader serious about creating a place where people want to be. It has massive implications in the talent war – in the ability to attract and retain talent. Ignoring the ‘tribal’ component of one’s business is to turn a blind eye to perhaps the most important ingredient in building an inviting corporate environment and culture.

Stories follow Themes. Christopher Booker his epic book The Seven Basic Plots maintains that all stories follow one (or a combination of) seven basic plots. A primary responsibly for leadership is to identify patterns: patterns in behaviour, patterns in trends – in both the internal and external environments. ‘When first we mean to build, we first survey the plot, then draw the model’ Shakespeare advises in Henry IV. Leadership that pays attention to only individual circumstances or events runs the risk of failing to see the wood for the trees. A preoccupation with operational issues is often the biggest obstacle to effective leadership. Yet that is exactly what plagues many leaders and the teams they lead – a preoccupation with operational concerns. It is after all understandable in that leaders often arrive in leadership positions due to their track record of operational competence. Is it any surprise then that as leaders they continue to focus on what they know best, what they are comfortable with and the very thing which got them there in the first place? However, leadership requires more than an operational focus and expertise. It requires the ability to recognise patterns. An ability to see context.

The ‘O’ signpost:

Working with the Asia Pacific Leadership Program (APLP) involved sitting under the stars, around a roaring fire on a beach on Molokai. A sure tonic for the soul! APLP, under the astute direction of Professor Nick Barker, pays attention to the importance of storytelling. Early in the APLP experience the participants spend four days on Molokai where, amongst other things, they subscribe to the Hawaiian tradition of ‘talk story’. Nights are spent around the fire on the beach, and with the hypnotic sounds of the sea in the background, we hear how it was that each person’s journey has now come to intersect. This is the ‘story circle’ (O).

Savvy leaders create the time and space for story circles. They can be amongst the most powerful of workshops and they have multiple applications. They can be used to help surface the corporate narrative; they can be used to test the alignment between the stated values and the lived behaviour; they can be used to connect people and build relationships; they can be used to energise and create perspective.

They can achieve such objectives because stories serve to develop caring and connected relationships. They invite further conversations and we engage each other through sharing our stories. Engaging people’s stories deepens the conversation and is a way of instigating the delicate work of building trust in an organisation. Our stories illuminate the diversity of our experience; they challenge the plausibility of our perspectives, and capture the flow of changing realities.

Story circles can be done anywhere – you don’t need the stars, sea and a beach on Molokai! You need good facilitation and a clear reason and context for doing so. To initiate a story circle process is perhaps amongst the smartest, and perhaps boldest, of leadership acts.

The ‘R’ signpost:

Our stories have deep Roots. Roots, as any botanist or anthropologist will tell you, are important. Healthy plants and healthy communities have good roots. Roots remain hidden to the naked eye and yet the evidence of their health is immediately apparent. Through the work and words of Goleman, Collins and others, the concept of ‘emotional intelligence’ (EI) has entered the leadership lexicon and is gaining a foothold in our understanding of what makes for good leadership. In Primary Leadership Goleman outlines the core domains of EI in what he terms ‘resonant’ leadership. The four domains are: Self-awareness, self-management, social awareness and relationship management. Self-awareness and social-awareness are ‘root territory’. Exploring and exposing this territory is not optional for anyone hoping to become a savvy leader. The Enneagram, a framework and body of knowledge that has evolved over time, reveals compulsions that drive our behaviour. It exposes the roots of human behaviour in a way that no other tools that I have come across does. It warrants further scrutiny for any leader serious about pursuing emotional intelligence. Any journey into this territory is made possible through our stories. It is through our stories that we can access such roots and make sense of them.

I recall reading a leadership reflection of an emerging Chinese leader. She started her story with, ‘every day a stranger would bring my grandmother home’. The story she told was her memory as a young girl growing up in China, watching her elderly grandmother leaving home every day for her daily walk. Her grandmother would leave home with a large cardboard sign around her neck on which was written her name and address as a failing memory, combined with a thirst for exploration, would inevitably mean that she would get lost and require some kind-hearted person to bring her home. This memory had left a deep impression on the grand-daughter and years later, inspired by her grandmother’s tenacity and adventurous spirit, had herself left the familiar and had spread her wings as she pursued her own dreams. We all are a product to some extent of our roots. Knowledge of such can either ensnare or liberate, be used as an excuse for paralysis or a motivation for change.

Every organisation faces the same option when it comes to their roots. IBM’s CEO, Palmisano recognised how IBM’s roots needed to be ‘re-potted’ if the company was to survive the crisis of the early 1990’s and have a future. The account of how he undertook the challenging task of working with the roots makes for compelling reading. Roots determine health and working with roots is a delicate undertaking.

The ‘Y’ signpost:

Stories always reveal the storyteller. They reveal You. This is what makes stories so powerful as a connector and builder of relationships. This is why the stories your staff tell about your organisation cannot be ignored no matter how contrary the PR spin might be. The stories we tell reveal something about who we are.

Story circles reveal the true character of the organisation and this is why they can be high-risk to ‘smoke and mirror’ leaders. Recently I was chatting to the person responsible for the leadership academy for an international food retailer. He shared how, having read about storytelling in my book, Everything I know about leadership I learnt from the kids, he initiated a story circle for the company’s executive team. It was a risky venture! However, he told of how the CEO chose to share his story first and in doing so was open, transparent and authentic. It set the tone for what he said was one of the most significant experiences the executive team had ever experienced. What they had done was to share personal stories free from the posturing and one-upmanship that can so easily plague how we share with one another. Stories reveal something of the soul; they reveal who we are.

This is why those wanting to be savvy leaders simply cannot afford to ignore the power of stories. The power of the narrative has to be engaged if you wish to build environments that will attract and retain talent, environments in which a sense of vocation can be expressed – this is the script from which savvy leaders live, lead and build a legacy.

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