Margaret Wheatley has said that leadership is the simple act of stepping forward. Leading in today’s volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world – or what is commonly referred to as ‘VUCA’ requires a leadership response, unlike anything we have known in the past. One could even take the ‘VUCA’ acronym and spin it into a ‘VUCA leadership response’ namely, vision, understanding, connection, and agility. These four responses have merit and could certainly provide further food for thought when it comes to leading in today’s context. However, I wish to briefly spotlight just one of these suggested responses, that of ‘connection’.
Effective leadership depends on connection. Quantum Mechanics informs us that connection is what sits at the very heart of the universe – it is the organizing principle of all things. Brian Swimme in The Resurgence of Cosmic Storytellers, writes: ‘The universe, at its most basic level, is not only matter, energy, and information. The universe is a story. Each creature is a story. Each human enters this world and awakens a simple truth: “I must find my own story within the great epic of being”
In his excellent book, Future Primal, Louis Herman, writes that whilst scientific laws and theories ‘generally deal with universal, repeatable, predictable regularities’ – in contrast to this, ‘stories capture the meaning of unique events – novelties – transforming over time’. This is what makes understanding the role, place, and importance of story so vital for leaders. Story connects the head and the heart – both of which are necessary in leadership; both of which are necessary in the act of ‘stepping forward’.
The problem today is that the overriding emphasis has been placed on measurement. Anything that does not subscribe to the conventional wisdom of our metrics is viewed with suspicion or immediately downgraded to something that is less important; something that we don’t need to take quite as seriously as what ‘really matters’. When it comes to understanding the leadership importance of story in the art of connection the attitude is usually one of neglect or even outright dismissal. In marketing this is less so and the use of story in marketing has thus framed and defined what we understand by story within the corporation. Smart leaders understand the need to connect and the central role that story plays in whether or not this happens.
Many leaders are sleepwalking through the practice of their leadership. It has become a job; a technique; a responsibility; a measure and the end result is compliance rather than engagement; automation rather than creativity; a burden rather than a joy. It need not be like this and appreciating story could be the place to start the turn-around.
Curiosity around ‘how we got here’ and ‘where we are going’ will evoke story. Questions designed to spark understanding and answers that lead to further and deeper questions will evoke story. An ability to truly see others and a willingness to experience difference will evoke story. The intersection of our stories is something that smart leaders pay attention to and then use to build synergies, create understanding and inspire vision. As they go about their daily responsibilities, smart leaders lookout for stories, many of which are hidden in plain sight. Recently I watched an episode of ‘Undercover Boss’ on American TV – as the name implies, the boss goes incognito into his or her company to see how things really are. This particular episode (originally screened on 24/2/13) had to do with the surfing brand O’Neill and as expected O’Neill Clothing CEO, Toby Bost encountered both good and bad stories that he then acted on. Bost described the experience as, “eye-opening”. One way for leaders to get in touch with the ‘deeper’ stories – or at least those stories hidden from their sight, would be to get out of their usual routine or orbit. Doing so might prove to be a shock to the system!
Stories matter and so do stories and about stories. Smart leaders pay attention to story – their story and the story of others. Playing with what this means or how it translates within your company is really something that you, as a leader, need to work out. However, help is available but the more exploration and work you do in this line, the better it will be in the long run.