Storytelling can be a powerful leadership tool

“Oh, the stories I can tell …

Ever used those words to preface the sharing of lessons from your personal experiences? It’s natural because stories are often the best way to convey context, meaning, character and culture.

Storytelling always has been an important part of Native American life. It is through storytelling that the history, legends, myths and customs of Indian people have been preserved and passed on through the centuries. A good storyteller was held in high esteem. The words of the storytellers were thought to be sincere and their message meaningful. Many of the truly gifted storytellers eventually became leaders of their tribes or bands of people.

What can business leaders learn from the Native American art of storytelling?

Plenty, according to Professor Douglas Ready of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, also president of the International Consortium for Executive Development Research, a highly regarded leadership development think tank.

Says Ready, “When done the right way — and it’s not as easy as it sounds — storytelling by senior executives helps position a company to maintain success when its current generation of leaders departs and a new generation takes the helm.”

Ready was part of a team of researchers who scoured the world looking for innovative leadership development approaches. They reviewed numerous practices but settled on one as the most effective: storytelling.

They found that leadership is best learned when managers see immediate value in acquiring new behaviors within the context of their organization. They also found the lessons of leadership were best conveyed not by external gurus but from respected, experienced leaders within an organization.

According to Ready, “When given the chance to learn from top executives, emerging leaders absorb the company’s culture, values and guiding principles in preparation for the day when they are asked to be role models themselves.”

Effective storytelling is a sharing of wisdom and experience, both positive and negative, that helps frame the essence of effective leadership within an organization’s culture. It’s not a top executive giving a 10-minute greeting or a brief speech at a management gathering.

It is the development of rich dialogue around the direction, culture and character of an organization.

A great example is the Royal Bank of Canada, a large and venerated financial institution. Having grown extensively through acquisitions and looking to focus and direct the future directions of the firm, the bank initiated a series of dialogues in which the company’s top leaders shared stories and experiences, both good and bad, that helped shape both their perspectives on leadership and the culture of the organization.

Chief Executive Jim Rager led the charge, honing his own story over a six-week period, then sharing it with high-potential leaders at the bank.

His poignant story about the trials and challenges of a restructuring was illuminating and inspiring to his audiences. In the end, “it was all about communicating who we are, what we stand for and how we treat employees, customers and communities.”

How can your company use storytelling as a leadership development technique?

Ready suggests that you get the entire top team involved, not just one or two senior executives. And they’ll need guidance on developing and communicating their messages. “It’s hard work and it takes focus, practice and considerable thought.”

What makes a great leadership story?

It must be relevant to the organization’s current challenges, rooted in the experience base of the teller, level-appropriate for listeners and told by effective role models. And it must contain an element of drama that grabs the listener’s attention, stimulates learning and demonstrates the kind of leadership behavior that is the essence of your organization’s character.

Storytelling isn’t the solution to every leadership development challenge. But it excels when the challenge is building an understanding of strategic thinking and reinforcing organizational character.

Is storytelling an option for your company? With some focus, it can be an effective way for leaders to share and learn from wisdom and experience.

And it is from those interactions that an organization’s context, meaning, character and culture evolve.


About anasebrahem

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