Story Telling & Leaders

When I talk to Board members about a CEO I’m coaching or Senior Leaders about a peer of theirs whom I coach, they invariable include the leader’s ability to “bring others along with her vision or story” as a key component of this leader’s ability to step into the job.

Thinking of historical leaders like FDR or Churchill, we remember their sayings written from a storytelling mindset, which so moved our parents and grandparents during the Depression and the WWII years.

From FDR’s first Presidential Inaugural address we have “…. my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”

From Churchill we have: “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.”

The brilliance embedded in these quotes is they take into consideration the drama of the times the audience is living through and provide inspiration towards overcoming the adversity at hand.

Flashing back to the present, I notice that today’s leaders too often don’t use the power of the story as a leadership tool. I think this is because most leaders don’t really know what their leadership story is- and if they do, they are utterly stuck about how to tell it.

This is why I’ve been hired to coach dozens of leaders to teach them that storytelling is not a laundry list of all the great things they’ve done in their careers.

A good story has an arc to it. Often it recounts a journey in which the leader meets up with some form of adversity. It is how the leader responds to this adversity, and later recounts it in her story, that makes this a tale worth telling.

A leader’s ability to be vulnerable and talk about his own doubts and missteps during times of trial and tribulation also helps we in the audience identify with this person.

Thus I coach my Clients to show their vulnerability during times of defeat as much telling stories of triumph. What we want our leaders to show us who they are by what they endured in the dark times and how they were able to forge those into the light.

I feel I’m not alone in trusting a leader who can show us a window into her heart and values rather than a leader who boasts incessantly. The best leadership stories are about your showing your character to your audience, not your bank statement. Often times, character is revealed through your ability to tell the whole truth of what you’ve been a witness to- telling the truth and nothing but the truth, yet also taking the time and repeated drafts you write to craft it into a powerful story.