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Leadership

How leaders can tell better stories

Hipster girl holding two stacks of books, tied with cord, in an open field in autumn (Credit: rasstock via Fotolia)The power of words has not diminished in the digital age. If anything, words are more powerful than ever. Witness the recent statements from  Donald Trump, the New York Daily News, the San Bernadino terrorists, and other recent figures who have made headlines. Their words brought passionate responses. Actions may speak louder than words in many cases, but strong words can still cut through the noise and deliver a powerful impact.

Words are one of a leader's primary tools, yet we often lapse into auto-pilot and forget what we're saying and how we're saying it. Though one of a leader's most important tools, we rarely consider our words' significance and seek to learn how to become more effective communicators. Let's consider how we can grow in our leadership in this key area.

Max Depree in Leadership is an Art states that "the first task of a leader is to define reality." Later in the book, he further clarifies his statement by explaining that good communication both educates and liberates. It educates by drawing out of us an "awareness of the meaning of working together" and liberates by allowing us to "respond to the demands placed on us and to carry out our responsibilities."

One of the central ways that you "define reality" through your words is how you tell stories. Even though most people think leadership communication is mainly about clarity, the truth is that good communication must be wrapped in good storytelling to make it come alive. Howard Gardner, in Leading Minds, argues that "leaders fashion stories," and that the leader must embody that storytelling through actions. Here is the difficulty with storytelling in leadership, however:

"The audience is not simply a blank slate, waiting for the first, or for the best, story to be etched on its virginal tablet. Rather, audience members come equipped with many stories that have already been told and retold in their homes, their societies, and their domains. The stories of the leader—be they traditional or novel—must compete with many other extant stories; and if the new stories are to succeed, they must transplant, suppress, complement, or in some measure outweigh the earlier stories, as well as contemporary oppositional 'counterstories.'"

We've all seen corporate memos that are clear but completely uninspiring. When we focus on clarity to the detriment of how we communicate the points being presented, we miss out on the opportunity to engage in transformational leadership.

The power of storytelling in leadership needs no further illustration than our Savior, the word-made-flesh Jesus. He is the living word, and his leadership was a combination of powerful words and action.

So what are the "counterstories" that are at work in the imaginations of your employees, co-workers, and associates? One of the most powerful counterstories in the Christmas season is that the trappings of Christmas, the parties and gifts and shiny lights, can somehow fill the deep longing in our hearts for true meaning. Chris Yokel, via the Rabbit Room, reminds us though: "The appeal of Christmas with all its trappings isn't in the trappings themselves, but what they point to, which is an ultimate sense of belonging, a home we have not yet arrived at, a greater feast yet to be celebrated."  

Beyond the Christmas season, numerous counterstories are inculcated in the imaginations of those we work with, and one of the best ways we can serve others as leaders is to share with them a different story on both a large and small scale. On the large scale, we need to share the story of Jesus being the ultimate fulfillment of all our desires. On a small scale, we need to share stories of what it looks like to be a good employee, a good citizen, a good husband or wife. Leaders can shape the way people think about how their job impacts the larger purpose of the organization by simply telling and living stories that reinforce positive contributions.

So how can you actually improve in your storytelling as a leader? First, immerse yourself in good stories. Read, watch, and listen to stories that inspire, challenge, and grow your heart. Second, think about creative ways you can tell stories in your leadership. Maybe you can start off your next meeting with a story praising one of your employees for a small action you witnessed that made a positive impact on someone's life. Or maybe you can include a story of a life transformed by your ministry, your school, or your business in the next company or staff-wide email. The key is to think about what stories your people need to hear, and then to find creative ways to tell those stories.

Max Depree once more: "There may be no single thing more important in our efforts to achieve meaningful work and fulfilling relationships than to learn and practice the art of communication."

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