How Sharing Through Storytelling Can Activate Leadership Right Now
I never set out to be a leader. Like many people who have looked back and discovered that somewhere along the way they are the one that others follow, I too became a leader without any fanfare. There were no titles awarded to me, nothing to signify the transition from follower to leader, and nothing to even notify me that I was someone others looked to for guidance.
There is only one recollection I have of leadership being officially bestowed on me. When I was six years old, my mother and father divorced. My father, whom I only saw once after that day, said from the driver’s seat of his car as he prepared to make the 2000-mile journey to his new life, “Watch after the girls. You are in charge here now.” As he drove off, my two sisters and I cried only because my mother was crying, not because we understood the gravity of the situation.
But I do remember struggling with his words, wondering over the years how I was supposed to watch over them. I was just a kid, and life in a strange family dynamic was hard. Even as a child I was an entrepreneur though. I remember people telling me I was a leader when I sold Olympic greeting cards door-to-door, and when I was finally big enough to become a lawn-boy. People told me these things, but I was still not old enough to really know what a leader was. I just sensed it was a person who did something differently than others. As I entered my career after graduate school, there was no clear delineation between my role as a leader and as a non-leader. It just seemed like one day everyone was coming to me before making decisions or taking actions.
Three decades after my first job I recognize that like many others, leadership came not because of a title but because of an action. There was something that made me different than the other kids no selling greeting cards and later, the other adults in my office. There was one simple action that transformed my role, but more importantly my impact: I shared.
Sharing is what makes leadership go viral. People can be told something, people can be sold something, and people can be given something. And while there is a place and a time for each of these transactional methods of leadership, sharing goes beyond the transaction because it creates a relationship. Sharing is a two-way street, and the sharer often benefits as much as the person being shared with. When sharing is predicated upon authenticity, it often comes full circle and as others take what we have shared and create something magnificent – and sometimes we end up on the receiving end of what we have shared in the first place.
Just this week I called one of my former students. It has been ten years since he took what I had shared with him, not just from training and lectures, but from the time I invested in mentoring him and giving him resources to evolve and grow as a leader. Over the years we have kept in touch, I have watched him mentor others, and now I needed his help and expertise. Because I had shared freely with him, he was now in a position to share the results of his innovation with me, or more specifically my family member who needed a local resource to solve a specific problem.
Leaders become leaders because they share. How can new leaders share? First by telling their story. In every one of our lives, whether we are young or old, there are experiences and learning we have had that can be shared. In my coaching with young executives, they often feel odd trying to lead older employees who have decades more industry experience than them. The way to overcome this is to learn how to share stories.
Stories are the universal mechanism for activating leadership. Stories cause the listener to look inside themselves to determine how they relate to the situation and what impact it will have on them. We are trained that stories convey messages, and so subconsciously when we hear a story, we are looking for the lesson. The good news for those who find themselves in a position of leadership and don’t know what to do: every person has a story. Young and old, experienced or not. For example, a 22-year-old city employee in their first position after college can share with older workers the stories that have informed them, and older workers can share the wisdom they have learned through stories. The products of such exchanges are the foundation of a leadership-centered approach.
By sharing stories, parables, and metaphors, we create leadership communication in a way as old as history itself. But how do leaders know which stories to share and when to share them? Just like a speechwriter or a media interview guest prepares talking points, leaders can look through their experiences and begin crafting the stories that resonate with others, have impact, and share valuable lessons. Leaders can test these out individually, in small group meetings, and even by writing blogs and getting feedback. Over time, your repertoire of leadership stories will have meaning and purpose and will become the foundation for sharing with others in a meaningful way.
The result of sharing through stories is that as the listener looks inside themselves to find the application and resonance of the story. Then, they almost always respond with questions. Sometimes they respond by adding to the story or even sharing it with others. This creates a circle of communication, and the narrative created by shared communication in business becomes the foundation for corporate culture.
In a year or two, or even in a decade or two, nobody is ever going to remember the third bullet point shared in a quarterly staff meeting. But it is entirely likely that a story told will be remembered for its impact, and the way it moved or changed the culture.
What are some ways you can hone your storytelling skills? The best way I’ve found is by listening to speakers who tell stories. Take a course on therapeutic or business storytelling. Read stories and business fables like The Decision Maker by Ray Bakke or The Go-Giver by Bob Berg. Understand and acknowledge that your leadership comes from your ability to communicate through the power of stories. Start developing your own stories, share them with others, and soon you will realize that sharing through stories is the easiest way to engage a team, create a culture, and engage a customer.