How you can use storytelling to lead more effectively

A model for influencing the people you get to lead

There are at least three elements you need to lead.

  2. A destination
  3. A story

All three are equally important, and none, strictly speaking, matters more than any other — like with shoes, missing one leg is tantamount to having none. And yet, for that very reason, a shoe with a broken heel takes priority until that’s fixed. Similarly (and as is obvious from the title), I deem story most important because, despite long being a buzzword, it’s still often seen as abstract or “soft.”

But first, a quick look first at the other two.

The first is the most obvious: you’re no leader until you gain your first follower, and your leadership is valid only as long as you actually have a following. So even though other things matter (and even though it can be annoying), it’s hardly surprising that one main way people will measure your influence as a leader—and yes, your success, too — is how many followers you have. Nor is it surprising that followers are the most sought-after element for aspiring leaders.

Followers, you could say, are a form of leadership capital.

But followers have to be following you somewhere, which is where the second element comes in: the destination—the goal, the mission, the big, important thing you’re leading everyone to.

Which brings us to the third element…

A breakdown of the story element in leadership

If you’ve ever tried to lead people, though, you have likely experienced one of two common challenges: getting people to follow you at all, or getting them all to follow you in one direction.

Either of these two challenges is often indicative of a major problem with the third element: the story.

The story is what connects it all together, in what you might call a threefold cord.

  1. It connects the followers to the destination
  2. It connects the followers to the leader
  3. It connects the followers to one another.

And a story makes all these connections because that’s exactly what a story is: information—facts, principles, values, beliefs, ideas—connected so as to appear plausible to the human mind. (Note that a story needn’t be true, or even possible. It only needs to be plausible: to feel possible to the listener. But that’s another story.)

How effective your story is depends on how well it makes the threefold connection: your story has to connect another three elements, which like the three elements of leadership, must also all be present…

  • Shared identity: This is who we are.
  • Shared vision: This is where we’re headed and why it matters.
  • Shared followership: This is why we believe you just the person right now to lead the way.

I deliberately didn’t number these: it doesn’t matter what order they come in. Nor do you necessarily have to make them up: one or more of the elements may already exist (better for you, actually). But you do need to be able to connect them into a story you can share.

4 practical uses of thinking about leadership as storytelling

One of the things you learn in medical school is that classifications are only useful if you can actually — well, use them. They have to be helpful for making a diagnosis, knowing how to treat or estimating likely outcomes. That lesson significantly shaped how I think, and really, the same applies to models. I can think of four ways this model can be useful:

  1. The obvious value of knowing how story works is in making it easier to determine what’s missing. If you’re struggling to motivate your people, or to sustain their confidence, consider where the story you’re telling might be lacking, or weak: a lack of shared identity, a lack of excitement in the vision, or a lack of confidence in your leadership. And once you know which it is, you know you can’t just focus on that, but you have to connect it to the other two, present the three as one whole in a single narrative. But you also know you need to highlight the missing element: a group name to capture the shared identity, a vision statement or chant to capture the shared vision, or frequent interactions with your people to inspire new confidence.
  2. You can actually categorise leaders based on which of these three leadership elements they naturally tend to. You probably already know the common grouping of leaders into task-oriented and people-oriented, or using 3-element leadership model, goal- or follower-oriented. But I’ve never fit neatly into either, until I considered this model and realised my leadership style is story-oriented. The point, of course, isn’t about which is better or worse, but about knowing which you lean towards so you can also determine which you need help with in picking other leaders. The value of thinking in terms of story is it offers a third category for those like me who didn’t fit into the more common two categories.
  3. Thinking about leadership in terms of story helps free you from the idea that you have to be super charismatic and bouyant to lead well. Because if you know anything about telling stories, you know that what really matters is telling your story with conviction, and that comes from really believing in your story enough to actually live it—you have to embody your story. You must consistently present yourself not just as yourself, but in terms of the shared identity, as a believer in the shared vision, and as one confident in your ability to take people there—and that last aspect raises a fourth area of usefulness.
  4. Projecting confidence about your ability to lead can be challenging because being a leader also often means facing the most uncertainty. People deal with this differently and personally I’ve tried, at different times, three ways, two of which I find limited in long-term usefulness. You could deal with this via bravado or tyranny, acting like you have all the answers — which works, until it doesn’t. You could lean toward public openness about the uncertainties, but you run the risk (as I’ve learned the hard way) that your followers will lose confidence. Or you might, using your story, focus on not just the answers you have but your shared beliefs and values, while saving your uncertainties for a smaller circle of followers and other leaders you can trust. Take your pick.

So there you have it: a model for storytelling in leadership. Feel free to apply it to the leaders around you and in the news. And feel free to add to or question any part of it, as you see fit.

Most importantly, though, what will you do with it?

Published by Doc Ayomide

I’m a medical doctor with specialty training in psychiatry, and I love thinking and writing about what it means to be human.

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