The Role of Storytelling in Leading for Change

(image: public domain)

You’re never going to kill storytelling, because it’s built into the human plan. We come with it.

— Margaret Atwood

Storytelling is important. People have always told stories. The art of storytelling predates written language. It still very much plays a significant role in how we understand the world in which we live. Storytelling is therefore, a very important aspect of bringing about change in the world.

Stories shine light on realities we might otherwise miss. They can also motivate people to act. Sometimes we see ourselves in stories. If our experiences are like those of a character, we may learn the same lesson that they have learned. We can come to the realization that our values and our concerns are shared more widely than we may have believed. Stories can articulate a vision of what we can achieve individually and collectively. They can be both inspirational, and aspirational.

Stories, however, aren’t just about seeing ourselves. Vicariously walking in someone else’s shoes is one of the most appealing aspects of stories. Stories help us feel empathy toward others. They allow us to experience the joy, or the sorrow that others have felt. Stories provoke and educate. They can provide cautionary tales that remind us of what happens when we fail to act in a caring and humane manner.

A Few Tips and Resources

You rarely have enough time to show someone that perfect documentary film.  There isn’t time for metaphor-laden, complex narratives. Your opportunity to touch someone’s heart and mind with a story is more likely to occur in a period of under five minutes. Your story should feature relatable, authentic, characters with clear, demonstrated values.

This may sound obvious, but it is important for a story to have a beginning, a middle, and an end. It should start with a compelling statement, and establish the humanity of the subject. The middle develops a clearly defined conflict that explores values, and chooses actions. The ending resolves the conflict in a way that illustrates a position or teaches a lesson. The story should end with a memorable line.

There are lots of people out there who know much more about storytelling than I do. Below are some good resources to help you craft stories that will touch people, and move them to act on behalf of creating the change that you’re working toward. Now go out and tell your story.

Traditional Versus Creative Leadership

“The role of a creative leader is not to have all the ideas; it’s to create a culture where everyone can have ideas and feel that they’re valued. So it’s much more about creating climates. I think it’s a big shift for a lot of people.”
– Sir Ken Robinson

traditional vs creative leadershiptable: John Maeda and Becky Bermont/Redesigning Leadership

A creative leader is able to bring out the creativity of other people. It is the opposite of “do as I say, not as I do” leadership. More than other types of leadership, this is really about cultivating an organizational culture that supports and values creative thinking and problem-solving.

A survey of over 1,500 CEOs, conducted by IBM found that creativity is the most important leadership quality. Flexible, open-minded leaders rely on creative problem-solving at some level every day.

According to Sanjay Dalal, CEO & founder of the website Ogoing, the top three characteristics and traits of creative leaders are:

“1. Great at generating many ideas – innovative, game changing and even commonplace.
2. Always looking to experiment with good ideas. Sometimes, trying out a few times.
3. Unwavering belief in their creativity and innovation, coupled with originality in thinking.”
See more at http://creativityandinnovation.blogspot.com/2007/01/top-ten-creative-leadership-traits.html

Creative leadership isn’t just about generating novel ideas or approaches; it actually changes systems. Travis N. Turner notes that, “creative leaders tend to pursue revolutionary strategies (that reinvent the system) rather than the incremental strategies (that improve the existing system).” For this reason I believe that it is more than a fad, or a “flavor of the month.”

Strategic thinking is inherently creative thinking. Leaders are continuously imagining how events will unfold. They are developing contingencies based on the reality that things are not always predictable.

An article by consultant Charles Day, in Fast Company magazine listed the “four weapons of exceptional creative leaders.” You can see how his list includes a number of ideas we have explored already. Day’s list includes:

  • Context – Context is built from the future back, based on the best current information. Understanding context requires both knowledge and imagination.
  • Clearly Defined Values – Shared values are the heart of an organization’s culture. Creative leaders realize that this arises from conversation and discovery, and not from orders or memos.
  • Trust – Eric Hoffer said, “Someone who thinks the world is always cheating him is right. He is missing that wonderful feeling of trust in someone or something.” Be creative. Imagine how you are going to establish and maintain trust among your stakeholders.
  • Momentum – According to Day, “Innovation is the consequence of exploration. And you can’t explore while standing still.” Nowhere is creativity more important than in creating and maintaining momentum.

There is much more to say about this (design, process, developing creativity skills, . . .), so more on this topic later.