Leading Through Narrative

Last year I enrolled in a leadership development program at my organization and enjoyed one-on-one coaching for the first time in my career. I began the program expecting to be personally transformed by developing a specific skillset I had identified as imperative for a successful leader. I need to be more assertive. I want to grow my decision making abilities. My strategic thinking skills could use some work. My self-narrative on Day One of the program said that I was insufficient as is, my strengths weren’t good enough, and I needed to become a different person to be an effective leader.

I was wrong.

The most transformative truth I realized through the coaching experience is that I am the best leader when I am me – when I fully embody the strengths I already have at my disposal. The focus of my development should be on those skills, not on a list of leadership capabilities I assumed were necessary to attain. What a shift in thinking about effective personal leadership!

I think this simple discovery applies to all individuals. We as leaders must remain authentic – to ourselves and to our organizations. You are not Steve Jobs, and your agency’s culture is not Apple’s. You can’t copy one phenomenal leader’s qualities nor one exceptional company’s practices as your own blueprint for success. I learned that a rigorous and ongoing process of self-growth is necessary to cultivate the most effective leadership brand. Imagine how empowered leaders would be if they fully embraced their natural strengths!

 

My leadership aha moment

The above account is a true story of a recent leadership epiphany. I chose to share it as a narrative so that you, the reader, could connect more immediately and intimately with the lessons learned through my experience. What if, instead, I had disclosed the same main idea – “lead with your strengths” – by citing research about why this approach has been proven effective and then outlining some benefits of such a philosophy? Would such prose be as powerful, or stick in your memory for as long as a real-life story can?

 

The power of stories

Storytelling is a communication technique that can transform boring presentations into compelling narratives, make ideas more memorable, simplify complex information, challenge people, and open listeners to new possibilities. Below are various types of stories and distinct purposes for each.

  • Visualizing stories are used to make your ideas more impactful by grabbing your audience’s attention, illustrating new or complex concepts, and encouraging imaginative thinking.
  • Shifting stories enable listeners to see a particular situation with a new lens. They are useful when coaching executives, facilitating diverse groups, and navigating environments ripe with groupthink.
  • Teaching stories intend to develop new skills and behaviors in listeners. They can describe a challenging situation or problem-solving scenario, help people gain self-awareness into their own attitudes and motivations, and illustrate new responses to old ways of doing things.

As a leader in the nonprofit sector, mastering the art of storytelling is an especially desirable skill because it doesn’t cost a dime. Practice telling stories frequently and to various stakeholders in both one-on-one and group settings. Consistent storytelling will create a culture where narrative is celebrated throughout the organization.

 

Narrative leadership: Storytelling that transforms organizations

Narrative leadership is the next level of storytelling; it is the act of listening to and learning from others’ stories to lead more effectively. Leadership is a social activity. It’s about engaging others in a conversation that inspires vision and translates strategy into action. It requires one to communicate well, advocate authentically, and facilitate meaningful relationships. Effective change management leaders influence others through the development of a shared narrative—a story that inspires people to act.

On November 1, join Elizabeth Scott, President and CEO of Brighter Strategies, as she presents “Lessons in Leadership: The Power of Storytelling for Change,” at the Nonprofit Capacity Conference. Through this workshop, you will understand how to marry your analytical skills with your narrative tools to better define context and craft compelling stories. Join us for an interactive workshop followed by a panel discussion with some of DC’s best storytellers. Register now.

 

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