How do you get excited toddlers to calm down before bed? You tell them a story.
How do you teach first-graders how to share, how to treat others respectfully and how to be tolerant of differences? You tell them stories.
How do you help middle school students understand the Holocaust, the Civil Rights Movement or the Vietnam War? You don’t give them a list of dates and names; you give them stories.
How do you guide high school and college students toward expanding their education and pursuing their passions? You help them imagine the story of what their lives could be, and what they could discover and accomplish.
So: how do you lead your company to innovation and excellence? You create a story.
There has been much previously written about the importance of building stories around products and ideas, but building stories is also a key element of leadership. To lead effectively, you need to provide a path and direction for your company and your employees; that path is often best communicated through a compelling story.
You begin where every story begins: at the point of inspiration.
Your new product, proposal or Strategic Plan is going to be innovative, groundbreaking or game changing, and your employees’ ideas are going to be the key catalysts for this innovation. Your teams are going to have the opportunity to grow their skills and develop something unique and new – something that could not be developed without their essential contributions.
Then you need to describe the hard work and sacrifices your company is going to make. There could be long hours. Budgets might be tight. It isn’t always going to be fun. However, hard work is part of every good story; the hero rarely takes the easy path, and true success only happens after you hack your way through the thicket.
And, once through, your employees are going to be rewarded for their work: both by its success in the marketplace and by recognition and renumeration from the company itself. This is the path you have set before them, and the story you need to tell to inspire them to follow.
You also need a story about you. Good leaders aren’t saints or larger-than-life, but they do carry with them a narrative of hard work, generosity, good spirits and perseverance. Your team needs to know that you aren’t the type of leader to be arbitrarily punitive or dismissive. They need to see you interacting well with your peers, your staff and even your family and community. In short, they need to believe in you; and you need to present a positive story about yourself in which they can believe.
Think of Jeff Bartel, who led Florida Power and Light Company/NextEra Energy, Inc. to be named one of the World’s Most Admired Companies by Fortune, and one of the World’s Most Ethical Companies by Ethisphere. You don’t have to know what his company creates to understand the significance of the story Bartel told his team, and the story Bartel told about himself.
Or consider John Maeda’s work as President of the Rhode Island School of Design. He’s currently telling his staff and RISD’s students a story about how design can improve technology and lead people to a more integrated global society. The product might be a well-designed user interface; the story is about helping people across the world work together efficiently and productively.
What about you? What stories are you telling your teams, and how are you using these stories to innovate and create?
During the rough times, are you using stories of success to inspire your teams to persevere? Is the story about yourself as compelling as the story about your product?
Before you start your next project, proposal or creative goal, think about the story you want to tell and how you’re going to share that story with your team. Remember that everything, at its core, has a story, and that good leaders tell stories to help their teams create, build and grow.