Ben Horwitz once famously said, “A company without a story is usually a company without a strategy”. It’s also true that a leader without a story is usually a leader without a strategy (or perhaps more accurately, without an ability to engage people in the strategy).
Because of its ability to connect people and rally teams around a common goal, story is a crucial leadership tool. It’s also a crucial business tool. A well-formulated strategy is one thing, but no matter how well thought-through or well-intentioned a strategy is, without the accompanying story to engage, enthral and inspire, strategy exists in a vacuum. It is a proverbial tree in the forest that no one hears.
And so, leaders must not only know the strategy. They must know the story around the strategy – the hero character at the centre of it, and the intrepid journey they’re about to embark upon. And let’s not forget the challenge and opportunities that lie ahead – because no story is complete without them.
It’s also common for leaders to be the heroes in the story (and yes, the villains). The authentic voice and unique language they use are an important ingredient in why people follow some leaders into the most challenging of situations – recession, restructures, transformation. Because they believe in a leader’s character, and they know that the journey ahead will be worth it.
So how do leaders become storytelling heroes? Thankfully, it’s a trainable skill. It follows a formula that generates millions of dollars for Hollywood executives each year. It’s Aristotle’s Three Act Structure and Freytag’s Pyramid.
But if it’s a formula, why aren’t all leaders good at it?
Because a huge part of storytelling involves character development. It involves a hero that is well-rounded and likeable, yet vulnerable in some profound way. Someone that we feel a deep empathy for as we get to know them. Someone who we begin to emotionally care about. Think Jon Snow in Game of Thrones or Katniss Everdeen in the Hunger Games. Likeable. Heroic. Vulnerable.
This kind of well-rounded character is often rare in the business world. But you know it when you see it. Think Ariana Huffington or Richard Branson, who have very distinct voices and who often show openness in their communications. This involves strength and vulnerability – an acknowledgement of the challenges ahead and even of their own personal challenges, as well as a resolution to overcome them. The hero within.
Authentic leadership must also follow the golden rule of storytelling: Show, Don’t Tell. You can talk about what kind of leader you are until you’re blue in the face. But the moment you show what kind of leader you are, is the moment you are what kind of leader you are. Think David Brent from The Office, who often talks about the kind of great leader he is, only to show the exact opposite (admittedly to great comic effect).
Authentic leadership is not easy. The corporate world can feel like a difficult place to be vulnerable, but the reward is significant. The reward is authentic leadership and a true following. A rallying cry to march boldly into the unknown, and to triumph in unexpected ways.
If you’d like to know more about leadership storytelling, visit our WTT Academy.