14th Oct 2011

The Story

The idea of storytelling as a leadership skill has been a popular topic in recent years. Politicians and policy-wonks talk endlessly about “finding the narrative.” Hollywood screenwriters offer seminars for CEOs and executives who want to up their game in the storytelling stakes. Fables For Board Tables (FT.com) was one of many articles in the press and across the blogosphere about how leaders use storytelling as a tool to inspire investors, galvanise employees and connect with their target market. The article includes an interview with Stephen Denning, a man who, having worked in a series of roles with the World Bank, went on to write five books about leadership storytelling, and who asks: “Can you think of anyone who turned around a situation who didn’t use a story?”

Stories are told in meetings but are also integral to company literature and marketing, and the reason for all of this is that stories pervade peoples’ minds. Storytelling is an essential communication tool in any number of situations, but in the life of a company, at the most basic level, one story is more important than all the others. At this level, the story is the medium through which a company’s ultimate vision is articulated in a clear and compelling way.

CEOs have to mediate between diverse stakeholders, and make swift authoritative decisions based on imperfect data, while retaining ultimate responsibility for failures and problems over which it’s impossible to exercise total control. The attendent sense of isolation and frustration is part of the job and can’t be entirely eradicated, but it can be greatly offset if certain fundamentals are understood and respected from the start, ideally in the first 100 days after appointment to the role.

Storytelling can foster comprehension and rapport within a large group of people more effectively than flow charts or abstract ideas. It helps if a CEO can combine the company’s origins, mission and vision all together into a story. The story of the company in turn acts as a mirror in which a great number of other people in different roles can see their own real concerns, challenges and hopes reflected.

This visionary process operates in institutions and groups all over the world, and it can work against those who do not make it work for them. It can have impressive results, as in the case of Apple under the late Steve Jobs (whose Stanford commencement speech in 2005, as mentioned in the previous entry, was comprised of three stories, told simply and sincerely). It can also have terrible consequences, as in the case of Enron, where the company’s central story became a grotesque lie that gathered huge momentum for a while but ultimately resulted in meltdown and failure on a grand scale.

The skills of Hollywood may not be necessary to tell the story of a company compellingly; such a story would be just as likely to cohere naturally around the CEOs authentic concerns and knowledge of the vital context. When it comes to compellingly telling a story, authenticity is the best and most durable persuasive technique of all.

Hilda Goold

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