This is the fifth of a six-part series exploring the ‘why’ and the ‘how’ of inspiring leadership in the nonprofit sector. Read the other articles here:
When I was first setting up my business, I told a previous employee, now friend, that I was going to help leaders to tell stories so they could be more engaging and inspirational. I asked her what she thought and she said ‘DUH’! And she said it very loudly I might add. I laughed and asked her why she said that. She said it was because apparently, I have always told stories. She has worked for me in various places for a number of years and noticed that I used stories in all sorts of different ways in my leadership. I did not notice. (Did I mention that I offer training in self-awareness? Those who can’t, teach maybe?!) But when I reflected, I realized that she was right. I knew that I used stories in fundraising. I was a shameless story dropper when it came to sharing impact. But I did not realize just how much I used them in my leadership until we had the conversation. It’s good to have a natural talent for using stories, and we all have it as human beings, but I wish I had been more conscious in my use of stories so that I could have been more conscientious about why, where, and how I used them.
We often hear about storytelling in terms of marketing or brand development. But it is also an important aspect of leadership. In fact, storytelling is one of THE most powerful competencies you can develop in leadership and stories are THE most useful tools you will have in your leadership toolkit. You can use stories in many different ways and in many different situations. And, being a great storyteller is essential for being an INSPIRING leader. Utilizing stories helps us move away from a ‘command and control’ style of leadership to one of influence and persuasion. They can help us get a point across in a way that resonates, connects, and sticks. People remember stories in a way that that they don’t remember facts or sentences. We are wired to hear and share stories so if we want to have more impact in our communications with our people, storytelling is the way to do it.
Now, you may be wondering what kind of stories I am referring to when it comes to leadership. This is the area where all stories matter. An inspiring leader must know and be able to effectively share the organization’s story of purpose – why are we here? An inspiring leader also needs to know and be able to share the organization’s stories of impact - how have you helped? But for the moment, lets focus on the stories that enable a leader to create connection within the organization itself - your personal stories. Don’t freak out now. I am not talking about your most personal stories that you only share with people close to you. Nor am I talking about your stories of debauchery at university or college. I am talking about strategically finding and telling stories that help your staff to make a decision, learn something or try something new. I am talking about stories from your personal or professional life that help create connection and demonstrate credibility.
Sometimes you will demonstrate vulnerability with a story to emotionally connect and other times you may want to share a story that influences your employee in how they can move forward without overtly telling them what to do. This is not about manipulation. This is about giving people the space and opportunity to learn. We often get caught up in the risk of failure so we feel that we have to tell people exactly what they need to do and how to do it. But this only serves to ensure that you will have to tell them how to do it again next time. That’s management, not leadership. Leaving room for people to try things out, and potentially fail, enables them to equip themselves better for next time. And you can get on with focusing on the big picture, like other inspiring leaders!
Putting stories into action
So, how do you find the right stories for the right time? As you practice utilizing stories in your leadership you will likely find that they start come to you in the moment. But, to start, I suggest you ‘mine your life’ for stories. Think about the feelings and situations that may come up for your employees first. Perhaps a staff member might be scared to take a decision as they might get in trouble. Find a story in your past (personal or professional) where you felt the same way. You can choose a story that went well or a story that didn’t. Do not tell the person you are going to tell them a story. Make it a natural transition into the conversation. For example, ‘Well Rachel, I do understand that you are nervous about making that decision because you are afraid you might get it wrong and get into trouble. I remember when I was in a similar position...’ When you have shared your story, ask ‘What do you think I could have done better?’ if it was a story that didn’t go well or ‘Why do you think I did that?’ if it did. Have a reflective conversation together on your situation. Finish the conversation with ‘What do you think you will do next?’ and if she is not sure, invite her to go away and think about it. You are leaving room for Rachel to make her own decision and giving her permission to get it wrong.
Spend a couple of hours each month on finding and writing down stories that relate to common situations your employees face and you will find you have quite a toolkit in the end. You can even create your own personal ‘story bank’ of stories you can pull from in relevant situations. This practice will help you to be more intentional in your storytelling as I wish I had been more often in the past. You will be more effective in communicating, and you will feel more like you are leading rather than managing. You will also develop a healthy, thriving relationship with your people, inspiring them to do the same with the people they work with and/or lead in the future. Sharing your stories is not only inspiring, it’s contagious!
Find out more about HOW to be an inspiring leader in the final article that is part of this Inspiring Leadership Series. Coming next month, Inspiring Leadership: Dare to care
Lianne Picot is a self-described leadership and story obsessive who helps new & aspiring leaders to become INSPIRING leaders. Lianne has worked in the nonprofit sectors in the UK, Ireland and Canada for over 25 years as a practitioner, Executive Director and CEO. She is a Certified Executive Coach and a Part-time Instructor at The Chang School, Ryerson University, teaching in the Nonprofit & Voluntary Sector Management Certificate program. Lianne is also the creator of ‘The Leadership Leap’, an online leadership course that helps new & aspiring leaders to become inspiring leaders so they can increase their influence and have more impact. Connect with Lianne at firstname.lastname@example.org or find out more about her services at www.bluemorpho.co and www.theleadershipleap.net.