Storytelling is humanity’s oldest way of connecting to others. And for leaders, compelling storytelling is a powerful tool to help organisations grow and thrive. But why is storytelling even more critical during uncertainty or crisis? And what type of stories should leaders be telling? In this latest leadership article, David Hutchens, CEDEP faculty and author, business writer and learning designer, argues that storytelling becomes even more important when times are tough.
“We’re in this age where uncertainty is the new test for 21st-century leadership. More and more people are in chaos or are anxious and looking to their leaders for answers. So there’s a call for leaders to show up in a new way, not just with technical skills but with human skills. This call for humanised leadership, where we bring more of who we are to work to be our authentic selves, can be intimidating as it’s personal. But the skill of storytelling is your fastest path to this more humanised leadership.”
According to David, storytelling creates engagement and belief so people will act. “I use those terms intentionally as they are very human experiences. In our uncertain world, we need to engage the human and emotional systems rather than just a rational system based on data.
“Real storytelling is about communicating differently. When you tell a story, you can feel it move down in your body into wherever your emotion lives. So leaders need to find stories with a character, a challenge to be overcome and a conflict that makes the audience want to know what happens next. That moves us from our brain into our centre of empathy, emotion and connection. And this is what moves people forward – especially in times of uncertainty.”
Continuity, novelty and transition
When we talk about uncertainty – whether a pandemic or some other chapter in an economic or organisational journey – David recommends three different types of transformation stories: continuity, novelty and transition stories. This construct originates from David Cooperrider, the theorist behind appreciative inquiry. In his work, Cooperrider shows that all organisational systems have these three core needs that leaders must engage. During an age of uncertainty, these become even more urgent, and the stories we tell about them bring them to life.
1) Continuity stories
Leaders are responsible for managing the organisation’s founding principles, core values and identity and this is where you want to minimise disruption in times of uncertainty. That is also why continuity stories are so important in the midst of a crisis: continuity is the one thing that does not change.
“In times of uncertainty, everything’s up in the air. We are still determining what’s coming next. The organisation’s mission may change, and processes may change. So people are looking for an anchor. What’s the one thing that is not going to change? Your organisation’s identity,” David explains.
To do this, leaders need to manage identity through continuity stories, and the best ones include origin stories, value stories and excellence stories.
“Origin stories are compelling. What’s your organisation’s story? What is the thing that was true at the beginning? These stories can also be about the beginning of a project or your role as a leader. But the origin story is, tell me about something that was true when we started that was built into our DNA. And then, make a connection at the end by explaining why you told that story. You have to tell people what that is. You have to use your language to make that real because they won’t come to that conclusion,” he says.
“Stories are also essential to bring your values to life. Rather than saying this is one of our values, and it will never change, you create a different kind of engagement by telling a story to illustrate a value. You connect this living, breathing story to this abstract idea. When we connect our language to the story, we now feel that. We know what it feels like, and it becomes real and alive. That final piece is crucial.
“Excellence stories about when the organisation was at its best or when a team did something incredible are other good examples. Excellence will continue to show up even as we move through this world of uncertainty. So, those are a few examples of continuity stories.”
2) Novelty stories
With continuity stories, leaders are minimising disruption. Novelty stories, however, are all about vision and innovation. “Novelty stories are for stirring things up and managing curiosity. Here, we challenge the way things are done,” David says.
“So in times of uncertainty, we should be telling novelty stories about bringing in the new because these stories are a source of innovation and inspiration. Stories humanise the message and activate teams.
“What’s interesting about these novelty stories is that they are about the future, and the future hasn’t happened yet. So how do you tell a story about something that hasn’t happened? In leadership, we often have to reach outside the organisation for inspiration. So sharing these innovation stories is a great way to engage and motivate your team.
“Another example of a novelty story is to highlight innovation and creativity within your organisation. Tell stories about when you saw someone do something original or when a team surprised you with their ingenuity. What happened? And then imagine what could happen if everyone showed that kind of creativity and spontaneity in their thinking.”
Another novelty story is what David calls the bridge to innovation story. “That’s where you say, here’s how we came up with something new by applying something previously used in a different context. It’s a discovery story about how most innovation happens, just an iteration of something we did before. People love these stories. We see the team being ingenious and applying old solutions in new ways.”
3) Transition stories
And finally, transition stories are change stories where we can learn lessons. These stories illustrate how teams or organisations needed to do something different to get from here to there. According to David, these are the stories leaders should tell the most.
“Transitions stories are all about a journey and celebrating progress. My first example is our failure is an asset. These are stories that show resilience. We tried something, and we didn’t get the results we expected. But now we know something we didn’t know before. And let me tell you what that thing is. Now you’ve taken this failure which had a cost to it, and turned it into a knowledge asset, which has value.
“Again, the trick is to tell it as a story. Bring in all those story elements, and make it about somebody. We’re all interested in what happens to people and their emotions. So bring in all those story elements. Now we have moved the team forward by telling this story about now we know.”
Another change story or transition story is what David calls the eureka story. “These highlight moments of inspiration and allow people to see us thinking and solving problems. The trick here is to tell it like you might tell a mystery story. For example, the eureka story says we had a challenge, and we needed to figure out how to solve it. We were stuck. And so we tried something, and that didn’t work. And then we tried something else, and that didn’t work either. But then we found an elegant solution which led to this brilliant new offering.
“Rather than just talking about the innovation, the eureka story explains the thinking process and all the hard work that led to that moment.”
Stories are a social construct and how leaders decide what type of stories to tell and when largely depends on different contexts and situations. “Often leaders become overwhelmed with where to begin,” David says. “So I always recommend starting with story mining to identify the story assets you have. Just a title is enough. You can then go back and revisit the story in the context of continuity, novelty or transition.”
For more insights on storytelling and some entertaining story examples, tune in to David’s recent Coaching for Leaders podcast interview on The Four Storytelling Mistakes Leaders Make:
You can also download some of David’s storytelling resources including his Story Canvas and Story Dash cards for free here:
To find out more about David and to connect, please head to LinkedIn
The CEDEP GMP is a fully immersive executive agility and acceleration programme dedicated to top senior managers and leaders. Participants learn to lead and operate effectively in an ever-changing and uncertain world and are equipped with proven comprehensive collaboration tools and frameworks.
The red-thread of the programme is the participants’ strategic challenges. Participants bring real-life work challenges to the programme, and continuously apply their learnings directly to these challenges to develop solutions
This transformational hands-on programme awakens management performance by helping to deconstruct fixed practices and reconstruct new ones to use immediately in the workplace. It creates a safe space and provides the time out, insights and focus needed for participants to strengthen organisations and make them more competitive in the future.
The GMP also combines personal development techniques enabling participants to learn new ways to inspire, collaborate and innovate, so they become dynamic leaders who make better decisions.