I recently had the privilege of working with around 20 leaders from a large charity. They aimed to form a team and distribute leader more widely across the organisation to increase their capacity to successfully lead through these challenging times. One team member, an expert on communications, facilitated a brilliant session on storytelling and why it is increasingly one of the most critical skills for leaders and teams. The session was such a powerful catalyst for the team that I feel compelled to share this to remind all team coaches of the importance of narrative for teams.
Communication in organisations is shifting from top-down broadcasts of messages, missives and mandates to communication for alignment, engagement and collaboration. Communication tools have also changed, from messaging as the dominant form to dialogue and narrative to unify different elements into a coherent story by adding meaning to them.
Over recent decades, ‘theory of mind’ and ‘narrative theory’ have developed to help us understand how humans think and interact to make things happen. Critically, the success of humanity is down to our ability to use stories to influence how others think and act. Building narratives is an emergent process. Communication creates meaning, which generates shared expectations, understanding, and behaviours, shaping and evolving an organisation’s culture.
Storytelling is fundamentally about meaning-making. Meaning is what makes life worth living. It is the glue that connects people, places and things. It is our interpretation of how and why those elements connect. It can provide a compelling narrative about purpose, infused with characters and emotions. Stories move us to love and hate and can motivate us to move mountains to create better relationships, outcomes, and a better world.
Storytelling is the foundation of being human. To know joy and pain is human. To need is human. No human is an island, and no amount of power, money or influence will ever change our physical, emotional and psychological dependence on others. Stories can be happy or sad, good or evil, and can divide or unite people. Stories can be told to inspire change.
Therefore, stories are central to leadership. Through stories, we connect with others and coalesce around an idea. And so, teams need to be more conscious of their narrative in the ongoing and unfolding process of change. All teams have an obligation to be great storytellers – about the organisation’s values, vision, strategy, challenges and opportunities, stakeholders, decisions and actions. About what the organisation stands for and its dream of a better future.
Coaches can ask teams some powerful questions to help them to develop impactful leadership narratives as part of a change journey, such as:
- What is your story of change?
- How clear and credible is your story?
- As a leadership team, do you have faith in your story? (If not, why not? If so, why so?)
- How can you do this to inspire positive change when you tell your story?
- Which elements of your storytelling support positive change?
- What stories might you tell about yourself or others that act against positive change?
- Do you feel confident you have the culture and structures you need as a leadership team to allow debate and then form stories you can all agree on and share consistently?
- Are there barriers to advocating with strong stories as a team? What else might we need structurally, culturally, practically? What might we want to stop doing?
Masters of storytelling advise us that a story needs:
- To start with a notion of change. This is often a threat or a challenge as this draws the listener in.
- Identify a hero and their character.
- To have a plan with resolution (such as rags to riches, voyage and return or a quest)
- Purpose – for the listener to draw meaning
How might you apply this in your work as a team coach? What stories might you tell?