“Instead of telling our valuable stories, we seek safety in abstractions, speaking to each other aboutour opinions, ideas, and beliefs rather than about our lives” wrote Parker Palmer. He went on to say that, “academic culture blesses this practice by insisting that the more abstract our speech, the more likely we are to touch the universal truths that unite us. But what happens is exactly the reverse: as our discourse becomes more abstract, the less connected we feel. There is less sense of community among intellectuals than in the most ‘primitive’ society of storytellers.”
It is a bold and powerful assertion to make and one that I suspect the ‘academics’ won’t be too partial towards. But I think Parker Palmer is correct. Human connection is regulated at the most fundamental level through story. It is our shared story that allows us to connect, to empathize and relate. Not to know another’s story allows a distance that makes judging easier and prejudice more acceptable. It is the shared story that bridges the gap and creates the
bond from which amazing things can be born. Stories matter a great deal and this is something that is slowly starting to re-emerge in the literature and thinking orientated around leadership and organizations. We should not be surprised; in fact it’s (the role of story) absence for so many decades should be the cause for surprise!
There are some important themes emerging in a converging world that smart leaders pay attention too and one of these themes, is the importance of story. There are two fundamental pillars underpinning why story is so essential in the theory and practice of leadership: Firstly, we see the world not as it is but as we are. In other words our lenses dictate how we see and interpret the world around us. This is why Goleman’s framework of emotional intelligence (EQ) is so important and relevant which leads to the second pillar, we lead out of who we are. Self-awareness is fundamental to how we see and how we lead and these two are not mutually exclusive but rather are intertwined in a complexity that only can be made sense of through story. It is as we intentionally engage our own unfolding story that we begin to develop the self-awareness and intelligence that forms the foundation of authentic leadership.
It is easier to simply teach leadership skills in the quest for leadership development isn’t it? Of course leadership skills are important in the practice of leadership but for far too long they have served as a distraction to the main course and that is the understanding of story.
When we understand leadership as being about authentic connection, as being about influence rather than a title or position, then story becomes a powerful tool to understand and to use. We connect through our stories and we live and are lived by our story. This is what makes storytelling so powerful and memorable and yet we make little or no time for it within our organizations. We busy ourselves with data and concern ourselves with processes and efficiencies that we scrutinize, measure and constantly analyze. Again, there is a place and appropriateness for all this yet it comes at the neglect of what is really important – connection, both inside and outside of our business. The former masquerades as ‘real work’ and anything other than the activities that drives these things is seen to be an intrusion, a distraction and sometimes a waste of resources – both time and effort. And this is where we have missed it altogether. We have shied away from the very thing that ought to be central to our leadership – our story. We have built our muscles but neglected our souls. We talk earnestly of meaning and purpose in our work and in our workplace yet we have forgotten the very building blocks that make this possible – our story.
So let me attempt to make what might sound like the ravings of a lunatic, real for you in the challenge and daily practice of your own leadership. Leaders after all don’t have time for this type of thing, right? Well, that is where you would be wrong. If you are too busy for the practice of story, then you are too busy and you are inadvertently diluting the very essence of your leadership influence.
Here then are three reasons to practice story and how to go about doing so.
Our organizational culture is framed by our stories. Peter Koestenbaum suggests that the real work of leaders is not that of strategic formulation and execution, but rather, shaping and guiding organizational culture. It has been shown that the majority of strategic intent ends in failure and an examination to the reason for this – is not that it was poor strategy; the main reason strategies fail is due to the organizational culture that is unable or unwilling to support the strategy. A deeper exploration of culture will reveal the fundamental importance and role of story and so leaders go about building a healthy organizational culture, the place and role of story cannot be neglected. Of course it often is and that is why so much of our talk in the context of creating meaning and purpose in the workplace is hollow rhetoric that is met by cynicism and apathy.
So what can you do about it? Ask yourself (and others) how they see your organization. What stories do they tell in answering such a question? What stories are they not telling? What stories would you like them to tell? Could you describe your company’s mission and vision free from the business jargon that usually accompanies such statements and could you share what these are though telling some stories? Exploring such questions would be a good place to start but it is a journey that will take you deeper into the heart of understanding the essence of culture within your organization. This understanding is not something that should be left or delegated to your Human Resource person / team, it is something with which you, as a leader, need to concern yourself. Sure you can ask for help – Intel employed a cultural anthropologist to help guide them in this journey once they recognized its importance, so asking for outside help might be important in this quest.
Our connection one-on-one and group-to-group is determined by our revealed story. We are living in what has been described as the ‘connection economy’ meaning that our competitive edge is no longer found in business efficiency, but rather, in our ability to connect inside and outside of our organization. The ‘war for talent’ is nothing other than a connectivity issue and when leaders understand connection as fundamental to everything in their business, well then things change. This understanding drives exceptional service and smart leaders know the importance of connection.
So what can you do about it? Well for one thing, re-examine those connection points for which you are responsible. The one-on-one encounters, the formal meetings and the countless opportunities you have every single day to connect. Find your own ‘coffee cup management’ practice as championed by Brazilian businessman, Ricardo Semler and which he expounds on in his very readable book, Maverick. Semler talks about the few minutes it takes to make and drink a cup of coffee, a practice that Brazilians are particular partial to, and using that drinking time to connect with someone in the office. He talks about the importance of standing at their workstation and using this time for initiating a more personal connection point. He explains how easy this is by simply looking at photos or kids drawings on their desk and asking about these as a starting point. Building this practice into a habit realizes powerful results and serves as a starting point to forge connection. Another option would be to rethink some of your orientation processes and developmental programmes (have storytelling sessions) and plan to drop in on some of these from time to time. “Too busy for that” I hear you say…well then perhaps you are too busy to be leading? Leadership is never about time…it is about how you use the time you have and creating and fostering connection is the leaders responsibility.
We remember stories, not powerpoints. Powerful communication is shaped by story. Smart leaders understand the importance of storytelling and see this as an art essential to effective messaging and communication. The use of story sits at the core of capturing both head and heart. Smart leaders live their story; they share their story – and that of their organization; they actively look for story as a means of bringing the values of the organization to life; they see story as an organizing principle around which the core functions of the business operates. Yes, it is that important!
So, what can you do about it? Well for one thing, next time you have a speech to give, try splicing in some stories. Not as jokes or as a sideshow but find stories to illustrate the most important points you are trying to convey. It will exercise your imagination and might need some practice, but what for the results of such storytelling. I know of an organization that used a basic story framework to guide their entire strategic process, breathing new life into what is often a tired and mundane exercise. I know of break-aways that have been transformed through making time for storytelling and there is almost no aspect of corporate life that cannot be impacted by an understanding of the use of story. Find ways to reframe data by way of story and become known as a Storyteller yourself. In so doing you will give permission for story to flourish within your organization.
So if you are a leader, you ought to be a storyteller – in the richest sense of that word. Story is the connection principle of human connection. It is that simple and it that complex, but know this – it is that important.