Lead with a Story your unique leadership advantage

Lead with a Story : your unique leadership advantageI recall an article some time ago that told the story of a saleperson selling his highly coveted product in a large kingdom.  Everyone seemed to love the product except the King who, in fact, hated it.  One day the king announced that he would ban the product unless someone could convince him of its value.  Of course the salesperson spoke up and said, “I can, sir.  I’ll prove its value if you give me a chance.”

Stories that Offer Unique Leadership Advantages

When the king agreed to an audience the following day, the salesperson went home and created about 80 PPT slides with all the product and distribution data he could find.  He even had quotation statements from current and former customers.

He returned to the palace the next morning and began his presentation to persuade the King of the product’s value.  After 40+ slides the King proclaimed, “Off with his head!  I wasn’t convinced until now but that presentation sealed your fate!”

As an instructional designer, leadership developer and coach to leaders who speak and train, I love to retell that simple story that leads to the “Death by PowerPoint” discussion.
Much has been written in the last few years about storytelling as a leadership tool.  Indeed, some of the best resources that I recommend on leadership and the skills of leading teams in the workplace today are written as fables themselves.

Remember Mary Jane Ramirez at First Guarantee Financial in Seattle struggling to motivate her employees?  On a walk, she observes people working in a nearby fish market having so much fun and showing such passion that people stop just to watch them work.  Fish! A Remarkable Way to Boost Morale and Improve Results,  the book caught the business world by storm.  I still make it a point to get to Pike’s Market in Seattle to watch them toss fish every time I visit my son there.

How about Fred who must convince his fellow penguins, Louis, Alice and NoNo that something has changed about their home and they need to take quick action in John Kotter’s Our Iceberg Is Melting: Changing and Succeeding under Any Conditions.

I love the Death by Meeting story of Casey McDaniel, the founder and CEO of Yip Software, who finds himself in the midst of a problem he created, but one he doesn’t know how to solve.  Will Peterson, an unlikely advisor arrives with what Casey thinks are wild and crazy ideas about what to do next. While Casey is reluctant to follow Will’s advice, he’s desperate to try anything and in fact, models several ways to improve the effectiveness of team meetings.

Patrick Lencioni’s The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, much like his Death by Meeting or The Five Temptations of a CEO is written in the style of a fable to provide still more insights for leaders.  In The Five Dysfunctions, he tells the story of Kathryn Petersen, fictional Decision Tech’s CEO, who is challenged with the crisis of uniting a team in such disarray that it threatens to bring down the entire company.   This quick read is a timeless reminder that leadership requires as much courage as it does insight. Throughout the story, Lencioni reveals the five dysfunctions which go to the very heart of why teams often struggle.  He outlines a powerful model and actionable steps that can be used to overcome these common hurdles and build a cohesive, consistently high performing team. Just as with his other books, Lencioni has written a compelling story with a powerful yet deceptively simple message for all those who strive to be exceptional team leaders.

What is it about a story that is so incredibly effective for us in presenting our case and persuading others?  Storytelling; this practice of developing and delivering stories has been called by many, the single most crucial skill needed by organizational leaders of the future.  Why is so important to business leaders?

As a leader, when did you last order your team to “get more creative” or “be more innovative” or “follow the rules?”  Would that really happen?

Inspiration from leaders often comes from sharing our stories of challenge, adversity, difficulty and what we’ve done to meet these issues and move forward.  Over and over, I’ve seen the power of story to inspire, with teams who are willing to be vulnerable with each other.
Some years ago, I worked with a team struggling to come together under a common vision after a company reorganization brought them from very different departments.   Losing former co-workers who they’d developed long term relationships with and now “forced” to work with new colleagues immediately without a chance to get to know them was, quite frankly, painful.

We started our session together with a simple yet structured activity asking each person to share a story from their childhood or early working career that was particularly difficult.  That’s all.  They didn’t need to share the ending–the results…good or bad; just the difficulty at this point.  My purpose was to set the tone and begin the dialogue for this 2 day session.
One of the participants let us know that this situation was as unbearable as any he’d ever experienced in his career.  He was, he said, the only survivor of his entire department.  All the others had been victims of the reorganization; the reduction in force.  He admitted feelings of guilt, lack of confidence, even fear that this new team would soon discover that he lacked some of the skills expected in this new department.  In fact, he believed that at least two of those let go were more qualified for this position than he.  It was a moment of nakedness…he modeled vulnerability that morning and was very soon embraced by a team that, I believe, would have struggled to coalesce for a long time without his honesty.

I’ve used openers similar to this one many times in my workshops and am always humbled by the stories that people are willing to share when given permission in this way.  I’ve heard about professional embarrassments with bosses, college misjudgments with lasting repercussions, childhood illnesses, more than one devastating accident involving a family member and even a parent’s suicide.  Team members often realize they grew up in the same area, went to the same schools, were inspired by the same community leaders, even shared similar jobs or followed similar career paths.  Many times I hear, “I’ve known you for ______ years and I never knew that!”  There are gasps, smiles, laughter, dynamite eye contact and also tears and expressions of compassion—the beginning of vulnerability based trust so vital to high performing teams,

As adults, we like stories—they offer authenticity, transparency, a way for us to relate in a human way to our leaders, our presenters, our colleagues.  As a leader who presents to audiences of 5 to 300, I tell a lot of stories to engage my listeners but I don’t stop with the details.  I am intentional about incorporating pictures of human faces showing expression, sometimes exaggerated music or sounds and even smells to ignite emotion and connection for my audiences.

The best advice I ever got about delivering my stories as a leader though, was to move beyond the narrative to creating a scene or event for others to participate in.  It works!

When I can turn a story into an event that people relate to and even take part in, it’s incredibly effective at inspiring them.  Adult brains, as we know, like to complete the picture—solve the problem—generate relevant solutions independently.  When they are allowed to do so, our stories come alive.  Listeners are inspired.  They engage and remember what is most meaningful for them,

Stop back here for Lead with a Story Part 2: 10 ways to take your stories from good to great!