The Problem with Great Leaders

Photo by  Olga Doganoc  on  Unsplash

Photo by Olga Doganoc on Unsplash

In this blog, we will cover a key aspect of leadership. We’ll look at something all leaders share: inspiring through stories. However, this brings with it another commonality: because they are such great storytellers, they assume everyone else has the same capability. When this happens in organizations, it can get in the way of effective leadership. Great leaders recognize this fact and work hard to ensure that those around them invest in building learnable story skills. In so doing, they ignite leadership like wildfire throughout their organization (see Jack Welch).

I’ve always been a geek for great leadership. I find the best leaders fascinating. How they approach rallying the troops. The fact that they can get people to follow them (no duh, hint you follow a leader).

Their amazing speeches. Maya Angelo. Winston Churchill. Andy Grove. Jack Welch. Steve Jobs. Martin Luther King Jr. They are successful at boiling down a story into its distilled form: quotable, repeatable statements.

“When people show you who they are, believe them the first time” – Maya Angelou

In the two decades I spent in the hallowed halls of two of the big, original tech giants (Intel and Microsoft), I was enamored by the great leaders and one day wanted to be just like them.

In 2004 I was living in Sacramento, California. I was fresh off the boat from the UK when I started a role in the Reseller Product Group at Intel. Willy Agatstein was our fearless chief. He was a great leader, and like other great leaders, he shared the trait of leading with stories. He even ran a book club. Now, granted, most of the books he recommended were practical books either directly or indirectly relevant to business skills “Who Moved My Cheese” and “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” to name two.

The original Positive Mental Attitude

One recommendation he made has never, ever left me: the book “Man’s Search for Meaning.” The book’s hero is Viktor Frankl who charts his life experience including his the horror of being interned in the notorious Auschwitz concentration camp. Through the story, Frankl describes how he managed to find ways to deal with the horror. It’s a seminal read on positive mental attitude. The fact that Willy suggested this book is not a surprise. He knew the power of story and that his team would be thinking about it many, many years later (in my case it’s 13 years and counting). Willy also told stories of his people, calling out the behaviors he wanted to reinforce. These authentic stories helped demonstrate the values and focus he wanted to see in his team. And it worked.

When leadership doesn’t “get it”

An example at the other end of the spectrum was a manager who will remain nameless. He was also a good leader. I enjoyed watching him tell stories. He was a natural-born storyteller but made a critical error. This leader assumed their whole team should just get it. This leader grew frustrated when team members who were more introverted were not naturally wowing others with a story. Worse yet, this leader also thought so highly of his skills that he refused to practice. Relying on natural talent, this lack of preparation showed up in his presentation scores. It stood in his way of becoming a great leader. If you are reading this and think it’s about you, (it probably wasn’t) I’ve had many managers and remember, he was still a good leader and this is no slight to them as a person.

What to do about it?

There are three simple, practical things you can do as a leader, especially if you are a natural storyteller.

Doing these things will result in your people following you to the ends of the earth, they will make every organization you touch more effective.

  1. Tell the stories of your team members
  2. Recognize everyone can get better, including yourself
  3. Story doing, story making, storytelling

Tell the stories of your team members

In the book “Lead with Story” (which I highly recommend by the way) Paul Smith writes a whole chapter on utilizing stories to define culture. Rules and regulations will not drive or influence behavior. In his story about flexible work arrangement, he demonstrates how capturing and telling stories communicates the intent of management. Stories captured and shared in emails, on websites, and around the water cooler are far more powerful than rules in a rulebook. Watercooler gossip is where stories infect the minds of people in your company.

Tell the story of the people across your organization. In a meritocracy, this is a natural way to espouse the great performance of your team in a reasonable, engaging way. The alternate, bragging about how great your team is, will just get people’s backs up and force you into a game of one-upmanship with them.

Recognize everyone can get better, including yourself

We are all unfinished works. As Steve Covey taught in “Seven Habits” (thanks again Willy), we must all ‘sharpen the saw.' Natural storytellers have a great gift and can change the world with it. Steel is a great gift of metal from the universe. But in sword (or knife) form, it must be continually sharpened to perform at its best.

Invest in training for yourself and your team. Do it together. Create a culture of storytelling.

Practice makes perfect. If you have a presentation coming up – be it at a big conference or an important pitch with a client, invest in integrating stories and quotes. Build your content with a beginning, middle, and end. I recently helped a client prepare for a big pitch; it was a lot of fun. They had solid content and an effective message. We worked together to amplify it and sequence it in a way that harnessed story for impact. The deal still hasn’t closed, but they have moved onto the next stage, and it looks set to close soon.

Story doing, story making, storytelling

We’ve covered much ground on the latter. What about the first two?

When you fully embrace storytelling as a leader, you can also utilize it as a tool. You can use it for ‘story doing’ the act of using story structures in internal communications, problem-solving and teamwork. For example, how you think through the customer journey from the setting of context, through action and results.

"Begin with the end in mind – having customers tell your story."

With ‘story making’ you create amazing experiences with the customer in mind. When you create experiences like this, customers will tell other customers about them. Done right, you are putting all the pieces in place for your customers to become your storytellers. We are all inside a living narrative. What we experience shapes our story. The people and places we meet. The challenges we come across. How we react and interact with those challenges and the world. Begin with the end in mind – having customers tell your story.

In closing

If you are a senior executive or on the road to being one, the odds are you are building quite the repertoire of stories. It’s also highly likely you are getting great practice telling those stories.

Whether you are a good leader, a great leader or on your way to becoming one, then it’s time to leverage the power of story to take your whole organization to the next level.

Dedicated to the memory of Willy Agatstein who sadly passed in 2013.