Friday, December 7, 2012

Effective leaders are effective storytellers

Effective leaders are effective storytellers

Daniel Goleman
Co-Director of Consortium for Research on Emotional Intelligence in Organizations


Good storytelling is a hallmark of effective leadership. It's a medium that allows leaders to move others. It also lets others know who the leader is. How the leader thinks and feels. I recently spoke with my colleague Howard Gardner for my Leadership: A Master Class series. Howard talks about three kinds of story telling approaches. One is the ordinary story. These are the stories that everybody tells, in this sector, in this domain, in this company, in this school. Then there are the leaders who bring a new twist to these same old stories. There's also the visionary leader who creates an entirely new story, which makes me think of the role of story telling in innovation and creativity.

Below is a recap of Howard's thoughts on how and when leaders might use storytelling techniques to motivate and inspire.

I would want to make a distinction between the role of stories in the actual creative process and then the role of stories as it were, spreading the creation to others. I'm absolutely certain that a very important part of any new invention, whether it's mechanical or literary or artistic, is a narrative vehicle which helps people relate to that. It helps them understand the ways in which it is complementary to, or consistent with or directly in clash with, what you did before.

I think the most iconoclastic painting in the twentieth century is Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon. It was so shocking at the time that he kept it under wraps for a decade because almost nobody could handle it. I think the narrative around the introduction of something new is imperative. When it comes to the actual creative process itself, I think that would vary enormously.

If you were working in a science lab and you pick up something that's askew and you decide rather than ignoring it or throwing it away, you really dig into it, I think you could talk about a narrative in a kind of metaphoric way. Namely how we used to phrase this one way and now we frame it another. It's an interesting idea to see how far you can push this story angle not just in terms of public presentation and convincing, but actually in terms of creating the new ideas themselves.

In terms of startups, let's look at Mark Zuckerberg. He probably got the Facebook idea working in his dorm room. We all will think it happened the way it happened in the movie, Social Network, and he didn't need anybody else for that. Once he began to become an enterprise, then clearly he needed to be able to attract people. He also needed to have direct and indirect leadership qualities to effectively tell his story.

Direct leadership means you know this is the person who is trying to convince you of something, and you look at what he says, how he says it and how they behave. Direct leadership can't survive the hypocrisy test, because if you push something very strongly in your narrative but every day you're undoing it in your behavior, then you have Newt Gingrich, who is not very convincing any more because what he calls for is so violated by his own life.

Indirect leadership is simply creating some kind of a symbolic product. It could be a literary work or it could be a mathematical equation. It could even be a computer program which itself is so heretical against the earlier standard that people consciously or unconsciously say "God!" We better pay attention to this. There are some inventions that you don't need to mobilize anybody else. I mean if you prove Fermat's Last Theorem and you publish it, the work is done, but if you're trying to start a corporation, you need the venture capitalists and you need people who you can count on to give you honest feedback.

Entrepreneurs need to be very effective story tellers, because basically it's a promise of a possibility that they're selling to people, and they're mobilizing people around them. If anything, I think this has probably become too important. Namely, if you're a great story teller, you have more success than warranted, and if you're a lousy story teller you may never get to first base. What I would then say, and I don't know a venture capitalist personally, to what extent are they smart enough to basically filter out the charisma and look at the idea per se?

Edited by: Lawyer Asad

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