Good leaders are great performers

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Successful leaders have mastered the art of compelling leadership storytelling, writes Nelia Joubert-Hartman, change marketing director at the Actuate Group.

Leadership today is not just about having the best strategic plans or smartest flowcharts. While those are important, what separates those truly effective leaders who have that special, catalysing spark is the ability to inspire action and enrol others in turning vision into reality.

What is the key tool successful leaders use? Compelling and authentic storytelling.

In transforming intricate strategies and propositions into relatable, human-centric narratives, today’s leadership has the power to not just capture attention, but to deeply connect with the hearts and minds of their teams, driving meaningful change. The challenge for leaders now lies in mastering the art of crafting and conveying stories that not only ignite a spark but also rally their teams around a shared vision.

Adhering to several key principles, leaders can enhance their storytelling abilities, fostering greater unity, cooperation, and effectiveness within their teams. It’s important to remember that the narratives we weave are instrumental in shaping the culture of our organisations. Therefore, it’s time we embrace the power of storytelling in leadership to construct a culture of collaboration, inspiration, and shared success.

Embrace the performance, keep the authenticity

I have witnessed so many executives resist the performative aspects of leadership. They may think they just need to present the facts and data for their strategies and expect people to logically align with their vision. However, research shows that is rarely enough.

In an era where employees are constantly bombarded with information from all aspects of their lives, cutting through the clutter becomes a crucial challenge for leaders. It’s not just about moving hearts and minds; it’s about making your message stand out amid the relentless stream of notifications, emails, and updates that vie for attention. Leaders don’t need to emulate Steve Jobs at an Apple product launch, but they do require a foundational presence and a flair for storytelling. This combination of clarity, engagement and emotional resonance is essential for shifting minds, ensuring your vision is not just heard, but felt and remembered.

The good news is you don’t have to be someone you’re not. You don’t need dramatic acting classes or a fake persona. But look at your leadership role as having a performance component – you are on the stage, even if that stage is a Teams call or town hall meeting.

That means being aware of verbal and non-verbal delivery. Make eye contact, slow down your speech, project your voice, and use gestures strategically. These simple tweaks make you more compelling and authoritative without compromising authenticity.

Most importantly, show up as your best self – with passion, conviction, and accessibility. Allow your human story to come through. That inspires others far more than mere information transfer ever could. Employees can spot fake immediately, get real and get personal.

The secret? Mastering the narrative arc

What’s Pixar’s secret to captivating audiences worldwide? It lies in their masterful use of a narrative arc that transforms simple stories into emotional journeys, connecting with viewers on a profound level by weaving together relatable characters, compelling challenges, and heartwarming resolutions.

The good news is that mastering leadership storytelling is easy, thanks to a simple framework gifted to us by Pixar. Their proven formula for excellent movie narratives applies equally well to crafting a strategic vision.

Beyond bettering their delivery, leaders also need to improve their content. Specifically, they need to turn their ideas, plans, and pitches into narratives that draw people in and carry them along.

At its heart, the magic formula goes a bit like this:

  • Something happens, and because of that…
  • Something else happens, and because of that…
  • Something else happens…
  • Until we reach a resolution or goal.

So, for example, a leader might frame their vision like this:

Our sales declined this quarter because we lost our biggest client. Because of that revenue loss, we will have to cut expenses across departments.

This chain of events leaves the hearer feeling uneasy – they need a solution to the problem at hand.

I know this sounds frightening, but instead of seeing this as a setback, let’s view this as a catalyst for transformation. What if, instead of merely tightening our belts, we seized this moment to innovate? This could be our chance to dive into upgrading our technology and expanding our skill set, turning what seemed like a hurdle into a stepping stone towards not just recovering but thriving – opening the door to new clients and opportunities previously beyond our reach.

This storyline isn’t just a sequence of events; it’s a roadmap that can guide us from where we are to where we aspire to be. Try applying this narrative lens to our strategy. Pinpoint the moment that sets everything in motion, map out the subsequent challenges, and then sketch out how our strategic moves can weave us through to a successful conclusion.
When we shape our discussions, presentations, and strategy narratives this way, we’re not just sharing information, we’re inviting our team on a journey. It’s about crafting stories that not only engage, but also inspire action and commitment to a shared vision for the future.

Align your organisation through story

Stories not only captivate hearts and minds, but they also unite them behind shared objectives. When people buy into a leadership narrative, they become invested characters in the organisational story arc.

This means leaders must expand their audience and make vision-casting narratives inclusive. Don’t just present to senior managers - create forums to tell your strategy story enterprise-wide.

And remember that people align best when they see themselves and their values reflected in the story. So, intentionally highlight different internal groups as characters and emphasise how success looks like winning for all factions.

Do this well, and organisational stories will develop their own momentum. Make departments the protagonists and competitors the antagonists. Show how supporting characters in manufacturing, marketing, IT, etc. are essential to the quest.

Stories reflect culture and stories build cultures

In the end, leadership comes down to culture-building. The narratives leaders choose and perpetuate shape organisational identity and norms over time.

Allow your stories to reflect the values and culture you aim to foster. Want more collaboration? Tell stories highlighting great teamwork. Want more innovation? Spotlight mavericks bucking the status quo.

While specific strategies may change with the market, foundational vision narratives should provide directional continuity. Employees then know how to align behaviours and decisions even in uncertainty.

Leaders must walk this line between responsive agility and steadfast conviction artfully. Be flexible on details, but firm on principles. Adjust tactics but insist on overall objectives. Reframe the plot but never alter the core theme.

Embrace this approach, and you’ll not just communicate but connect, turning everyday internal dialogue into a powerful force that unites and propels your organisation forward. In the grand scheme of things, it’s the stories we choose to tell that lay the foundations of our cultures. And in the realm of leadership, those who master the art of storytelling are not just narrators but architects of the future.

Remember, the most enduring cultures are born from the stories we tell – making every leader not just a storyteller, but a custodian of legacy and a creator of worlds.

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