Leadership is the art of inspiring others to make a story come true. Therefore, if you’re leading people, you’re telling them a story — by definition.
When most business people hear “storytelling”, they tend to think of movies or ads or website copy, or even someone making a bunch of silly faces in a room full of children. But even those simple examples of storytelling refer to something far more profound and human that pervades our organizational lives.
The intrinsic value of story is how it enables us to see things from a different perspective. Envisioning, explaining and, ultimately, persuading people to adopt a new perspective is the dictionary definition of leadership.
In this sense, storytelling is not some trendy, buzzword-laden competency for the hippie-dippie leader’s skillset. Leadership is storytelling, and leaders are storytellers. Here’s six ways you can think about storytelling as a leadership core competency in the age of transformation:
- The value and meaning of digital transformation initiatives need to be contextualized by story. Almost every organization is engaged in some kind of digital transformation initiative. SY Partners categorizes digital transformation into four buckets: (1) tech that changes how we work; (2) tech that enables new business models; (3) tech that transforms customer experience; and, (4) tech that alters the way we communicate. But the total impact of all that transformation is a core disruption to the way we all imagine our lives. In addition to selecting and developing appropriate technologies, organizational leaders must develop an overarching Change Narrative — a vision of the future that adoption will enable — in order to convince employees and customers to ally with the plan. (For a great example of someone doing this well, think of Elon Musk, who is constantly engaged with telling his story of the future.)
- Storytelling is a requirement of diversity and inclusion initiatives. Only the most racist and misogynistic among us would disagree with the statement that all human beings share virtually identical biological characteristics. What we don’t share is our “story”: the cultural gifts and personal experiences that make us who we are. In a globalized, highly connected world, each of us are being constantly exposed to people who represent, to us, entirely new and different ways of being human. Making space to understand other people’s stories and, importantly, be heard telling our own story is the only dependable path to inclusivity and creating an authentic experience of belonging within organizational cultures.
- Storytelling is the only job that can never be replaced by AI. Marc Andreessen, the founder of Netscape and the highly successful venture capitalist, famously said that, in the future, there will be just two types of jobs: the people who tell computers to do things, and the people who do the things that computers tell them to do. I think there’s a third category: storytellers who help people cope with the changing world. As you have no doubt noticed, if you’ve attended a networking event recently, our workforce is experiencing an explosion in “coaches” — people who guide and support others in navigating change. Expect this trend to continue, as disruption becomes more pervasive, and consider how coaching philosophies and roles can permeate your organization. (For example, a recent HBR article told the story of how two large insurance companies navigated a successful merger by supporting employees in creating their own mini-narratives within the larger narrative the leaders had constructed.)
- Stories are essential for introducing customers — and employees — to innovative ideas. To innovate is to bring something new to the world that no one else has seen. But because categorization is an essential function of the human brain, we need context to help us understand how any new idea relates to the categories of information we already have. That’s the reason that so many start-ups explain their business by saying “We’re the Uber of…” or “We’re the Airbnb of…”. These are simplistic attempts at framing a new story. A more effective way of doing this is called a metaphor. Metaphors connect two things that aren’t usually connected, and in the process deliver a new understanding. Part of the reason the iPhone was successful was that we already had a positive concept of the two things it combined: an iPod and a phone. The iPhone itself became a representation of that new understanding. Part of the reason that Google Glasses weren’t is that we didn’t have any positive metaphor to understand it, and categorized it as geeky instead.
- Stories use emotion to turn values into action. These days, it’s very common for an organization to establish the core values that underly its culture. But it’s even more common for those values to include aspirational phrases like hard work, integrity, putting the customer first, etc. that sound hollow and lack real impact. As human beings, we process values not as factual statements but as the unspoken insights that come with listening to someone else’s story. Values are revealed by the way people act. (Consider your perception of Uber’s values or United’s values, based on recent, newsworthy events.) In order to transform values from aspirational words on a website into real, tangible and motivated behaviours, leaders need to use storytelling — including their own, personal stories — to animate the feelings behind the values words. (Patagonia is a great example of an organizational culture whose values are manifest in every aspect of its communication, because of the story it tells.)
- Organizations can’t hide from their authentic story. Back in the pre-Internet days, advertisements, business magazines and newspapers were the only way that average people developed a relationship with an organization besides its products. But today, we are intimately exposed to the day-to-day life of every organization — the rises and falls in its stock price, the success and failures of its products, the scandals and its responses. As vulnerable as it seems, this authenticity is a good thing: the reason we like characters in stories boils down to just two things: we see them struggle, and we see them care about others. In the same way that we watch a child grow into an adult, we will watch organizations cope with or overcome the weight of its past, and navigate the hopes and dreams and failures of its future — often in real time. Marketing stories are connected to culture stories. Sales stories are connected to the individual stories of the CEOs, and the stories of all individual employees, customers and communities. The biggest insight of the next ten years is the understanding that every story connects to everything else.
The web is full of insights on how to construct compelling stories. Before you get there, you need to start with a simple admission: you’re already telling your story. The opportunity of storytelling comes not through inventing a brand new story, but by becoming aware of and re-imagining the story you’re already telling to your team, to your organization and to your market.
After all, the future is just your story.