Leadership and Stories: Telling It Like It Really Is

Speaking about stories and leadership, let me tell you about Jack, a successful manager in a mid-sized company. He learned the hard way, after getting some rough feedback on a 360 degree assessment.

On the surface, Jack was a smooth communicator who excelled at presentations. He had a gift for being articulate, direct and clear. So when he received feedback that people thought he was too polished and didn’t trust him, he was shocked.

I worked with Jack coaching him to understand how he needed to connect with his people. At first he was defensive, “I’ve worked hard to communicate well. I try to tell it like it is, my intentions are honest and authentic. Where do I go wrong?”

We had to dig deeply to understand where the problem was coming from. Apparently, under stress or crises, Jack reverted to polished theory and optimistic encouragement. He wasn’t reaching people emotionally, he wasn’t inspiring anyone.

The more things heated up, the more detached he became. People couldn’t connect with him. As a result, they lost trust in what he was saying. He wasn’t coming across as real.

I suggested he try communicating with a story from his own experiences, drawing on things that were truly emotional and meaningful to him. Fortunately, Jack was able to look hard at himself. He realized that working further on his presentation skills wasn’t going to change other people’s perceptions. He had to find a way to inspire people and resonate with them authentically.

We explored what really mattered to him, and what core values he held dearly. After some coaching to talk about his most relevant career and life stories, he began to unearth a few that were pertinent to what was going on with his company and team.

Jack started sharing his true stories instead of his usual speeches. He shared a story about his first carer failure and what he learned overcoming obstacles. At one point, his voice choked up in the middle of a story about his father’s advice.

Jack began showing up as a real person, experiencing real problems, and doing the best he could with what he had. He stopped painting rosy pictures that nobody could buy into anyway.

He started telling it as it is for him, in a deeper, more profound way. And his stories showed both sides of a situation, with all the complexities and paradoxes of real life, real business.

His people started trusting him, and supporting him in his efforts to lead them to success.

Leading with theory and platitudes may work some of the time, but nothing works better than real life stories.

I don’t believe he could have reached this solution without coaching. His initial stories needed some practicing to hone the most salient points. He had to pick the right story for the right occasion.

He had to be able to tell a story without getting lost in it. That takes practice. And that’s one of the things a coach is good at, allowing you to practice your stories.

As business consultant Annette Simmons writes in The Story Factor (Basic Books, 2006), “People don’t need new facts—they need a new story.”

What stories are you not telling your people, that you should be sharing?

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