How do storytelling and leadership work together?
A long time ago, in Las Cruces, New Mexico, I graduated from college and started doing theater as a business, which is unheard of in that part of the country. It’s not a theatre town. I learned that I was going to have to recruit talent – designers and volunteers, and tell them how great this was going to be – and for no money – and that after working hard all day, you’ve got to come to rehearsal and rehearse three nights per weeks, three hours a night, and there’s very little pay during the production.
But people would do this.
They’ve worked so hard, and they would come and work extra hard at night for me. And I always wondered, why would they do that? And the power is a story worth telling, and wanting to play a role in that story and share that greater purpose with others. Is that not the same model that a business owner or leader would like to imbue in their organization? A culture of deep commitment to the meaning that glory is trying to deliver to the audience? And be a successful performer consistently, day after day as in Broadway, night after night? And we’re all judged on our performance, aren’t we?
So, while I didn’t know it then, it’s essential for leadership to be willing to tell the story of why what you want is important.
And what’s in it for the rest of us? The people who volunteer? The people who are on stage get applause. What does the person behind the scenes get? So, making it worthwhile for everybody – so that they understand the story – what does it mean? How do I play my role in advancing the meaning of the story? How do I engage the audience in a way that while we’re pretending the truth in theater, we have to pretend it authentically in business the same way? If I’m giving a sales spiel, and it comes off, like a sales spiel, we’re all in trouble.
Authenticity is necessary, and not just the character who’s delivering it in their personality or persona, but in the messaging itself, where it fulfills some universal truth.
This similarity between business and theater is just a wonderful metaphor. We need to work authentically. So often, we do need the script. And actors don’t work ad-lib. Most times, they work from a script, but at the same time, it has to be believable. If your clients don’t find you and your story to be authentic and believable, the chances of doing business together are going to greatly diminish.
When does your mission come into play, and how do you use the story of your mission so that it inspires people?
Great question. I love the question because it opens up a whole universe of possibility.
So, there’s my higher purpose. There’s my vision. I’m a leader, and I have a higher purpose to serve the world or my community in some way – besides making money. And there’s nothing wrong with making money,
If making money is your only driving factor, it’s not going to be a big enough goal.
And for the rest of us who aren’t shareholders, owners, what’s in it for us if you succeed? Getting shareholder value, market share profits? Well, good for you, right? The leader needs to understand that we have a higher purpose – besides making money or in addition to making money.
We have the leader who has a vision of what the future looks like when they succeed. If we fulfill and if we do what we say we’re going to do for the greater good, what’s in it for the rest of us should be obvious.
After-school programs help kids become civic-minded citizens, tax-paying citizens. Well, the world needs that – I get it. I don’t have kids, but I’m going to support whatever after school programs I am attracted to for that reason, right? What would attract me to this after-school program or that one? What I believe in my values.
Your vision has to imply some kind of worldview or value system or belief system that other people can go, “Oh, I’m for that.” For example, I’m for public health. I’m for safe or I’m for having fun. I’m for whatever it may be doing good. I’m for making people feel safe. I’m for making people happy. I’m for helping people make their mark. We all need to see a beacon that goes, “Oh, I want to follow that one.” That one takes me to a place that I want to be.
When you look at a lot of mission statements, they’re there. They play it safe. They try to accomplish all things for all audiences. And they dilute their own power.
If you’re a leader, you want to have a really clear and compelling story where the stakes are very high.
I see a day when all children are judged by their character, not the color of their skin. That’s Martin Luther King, from his “I have a dream…” speech. He’s painting a picture of what the future looks like. And it’s a good one. Kennedy, President Kennedy, I see a day when we put a man on the moon by the end of the decade, not because it’s easy – because it’s hard. And through that adversity, we will clarify the character of the American people. While the storyteller died, the story lived on. And we accomplished the vision and did so two years early. It was by the end of the decade.
That’s what I mean by what storytelling and leadership have to do with each other. All the greatest leaders have the best stories. Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Kennedy, Steve Jobs of Apple – it’s incredible.
And the key is the higher you raise the stakes, then the more interested I am in your journey. And it’s not the success I’m interested in. It’s how you overcome obstacles on the way to that promised land or ideal or vision or whatever it is. How we overcome obstacles is the story that interests people.
You can’t inspire someone by reaching the end. You inspire someone by showing them that they can overcome the next obstacle.
3 Action Steps
- Use story to make it worthwhile for everyone involved.
- Create a clear and compelling mission statement that tells the story in a way that attracts your ideal client.
Connect with Peter Davis at https://www.linkedin.com/in/peterdavisbaltimore/ or firstname.lastname@example.org