Leadership Through Storytelling

Leadership and storytelling. If you also have ‘collaboration’ and ‘engagement’ and the free space, you should have a Buzzword Bingo. It’s easy to find these topics covered in talks at conferences, the pages of books, and articles online—like this one that you’re reading right now.

Self-referential humor aside, we spend a lot of time on these areas—especially leadership and storytelling—because they’re critical needs in building and growing a successful organization. And both are a lot harder to put into practice than one might initially think.

Leadership and storytelling are both hard topics to tackle but they’re not often tackled together. Why? Because we love putting things like people and tasks into org charts. Leadership is handled by those at the top of the org chart while storytelling is left to the right-brained creative folk on the marketing team.

While these buckets seem helpful at first, they actually put up barriers that keep us from getting this hard work done. Keeping leadership and storytelling separate also hides a critical connection between the two …

Storytelling can be a powerful leadership tool.

Back to the Buckets

First, let’s start with leadership. Again, most of us operate from an assumption that leadership is something for very specific people only—often dictated by the aforementioned org chart. Leadership only matters to … well, leaders. People with certain titles or positions on the org chart. If that’s not me, then leadership isn’t for me. Right? Wrong.

To put better leadership into practice, we need a better definition of a leader. Brené Brown offers a more helpful and inclusive definition in her book Dare to Lead.  “A leader is anyone who takes responsibility for finding the potential in people and processes and has the courage to develop that potential.” It’s not just a job title. It’s about stepping up and doing the important work.

By revised definition, that means that a lot more of us are in the business of leadership. But what does this mean and what are we supposed to do?

Story as a Tool for Leaders

Is there a simple definition of leadership we can use to get started? Amy Colbert, the Leonard A. Hadley Chair in Leadership at the University of Iowa’s Tippie College of Business, notes that it ultimately comes down to two things: “The core work of a leader is setting a vision and empowering others to achieve it.”

Setting the vision is big. But with an expanded definition of leadership, others have shown up to help us do the work. From there, how do we empower others to achieve it? That’s where story plays a key role. As human beings, we’re drawn to story as frameworks for helping make sense of the world around us. Because of this, stories can be powerful tools for alignment.

For example, I love good design. However, I’m not a formally trained graphic designer so personally producing things that would even remotely qualify as good design is a challenge. That was until I discovered Canva, a user-friendly online graphic design tool for creating social media posts, presentations, and more.

As a design teacher frustrated with design software, Melanie Perkins wanted everyone to be able to design. That’s why she co-founded Canva, which now boasts millions of users and billions in annualized revenue. And it’s a story that’s easy to tell: good design made simple and accessible. This story began as a founder’s story and then became a story to attract investors, customers, talent, and eventually media coverage.

Perkins mirrors Colbert’s definition, noting: “As a leader, I feel my job is to set the vision and the goals for the company, and then to work with everyone to empower them.”

Story Layers Form Narratives

There are many different layers of stories in organizations. Knowing how they all fit together is critical. Guillaume Wiatr is the Principal and Founder of MetaHelm, a firm that specializes in helping leaders build what he calls a strategic narrative. (He was also my guest recently on the On Brand podcast.)

While each story and layer of story is often framed a little differently, all are moving toward the same common goal. That common goal is at the heart of your organizational narrative. “Narratives are systems of stories that you intentionally design to bring customers on your journey,” says Wiatr. Layering stories into narratives can provide further cohesion and alignment, especially as organizations grow.

Salesforce Chairman and Co-CEO Marc Benioff credits the company’s success to communication and complete alignment through a process he developed called V2MOM, which stands for: Vision, Values, Methods, Obstacles, and Measures.

“The V2MOM enables me to clarify what I’m doing, and then communicate it clearly to the entire company,” Benioff wrote in a company blog post. It all boils down to these five questions that create a framework for alignment and leadership at Salesforce:

  • Vision—what do you want to achieve?
  • Values—what’s important to you?
  • Methods—how do you get it?
  • Obstacles—what is preventing you from being successful?
  • Measures—how do you know you have it?

Benioff notes that this process is critical in maintaining “a cohesive direction against a backdrop that is constantly changing.” Answering these simple questions helps you frame the story of what it is that you and your team are working to achieve together.

So, how can we demystify and connect the buzzwords of leadership and storytelling? First, we have to remember that leadership isn’t limited by job titles and org charts. Brené Brown further stresses, “It’s about the willingness to step up, put yourself out there, and lean into courage.”

Once we embrace this hard work, we need tools for connection and deeper alignment. And there’s no greater tool for sharing meaning than stories. As Guillaume Wiatr notes, “Strategic narrative is an act of leadership.” One of the greatest things you can do as a leader is to empower others to be part of the organization’s story.

When more of your team practices leadership, you can create an even bigger story together.