Practicing “Narrative Leadership”

Smart leaders today engage with employees in ordinary person-to-person conversation more than communicating a series of commands from on high.

Practicing “narrative leadership”

Increasingly, “leadership” is being defined as a conversation.

A June 2012 article in the Harvard Business Review rightly focused on how the “command-and-control approach to management in recent years has become less and less viable” because “globalization, new technologies, and changes in how companies create value and interact with customers have sharply reduced the efficacy of a purely directive, top-down model of leadership.”

Others use the term “narrative leadership” to describe how leaders use stories to engage in communication within their organizations and how they handle the flow of information to, from and among their employees.

It’s clear: Traditional corporate communication must give way to a process that is more dynamic and more sophisticated. Most important, that process must be conversational.”

Literature on the subject – and experience – suggests that this style of narrative leadership has many benefits.

The first is that conversation initiated by leaders can be effective introducing change or creating momentum toward goals by relating initiatives to the stories leaders tell.

Key to initiating desired action by customers, investors, employees or citizens is to influence beliefs in what is possible and desirable. (This is different from raising awareness or delivering information.) Belief leads these constituents to act. Those actions, when successful, give people confidence in the decisions they’ve made, and turn actions into ongoing behaviors. When those behaviors strengthen someone’s feelings of purpose, it can generate advocacy of an idea or action.

This process involves developing and telling authentic, compelling ‘leadership stories’ that are grounded in reality and that help people connect with worthwhile purposes and goals.

A second benefit of narrative leadership style is to ensure that an organization has a compelling story or stories that define it. For a company, these stories must communicate the organization’s enduring purpose – what it exists to do uniquely in the world – as well as the values and principles that guide daily decisions and behavior.

If the narratives are going to engage or inspire listeners, then leaders also need to be clear when they claim something genuinely matters or has value. (If it doesn’t really matter to them, however skilled a storyteller they are, it won’t matter to anyone else either.)

It’s important for leaders to find genuine points of connection between who they are and what they are saying: how they are personally involved in the bigger story they are telling. In other words, in what ways is value created and in what ways are lives touched by what a leader is asking people to do?

Leadership stories are best shared with others in a way that is open and inclusive, so customers, investors, employees and the public can see themselves in it. People are much more interested and inclined to believe stories that are rooted in reality, and that acknowledge difficulties and struggles while also offering something better.

As executives in communications and public affairs, as speechwriters, managers and advisors, the more we can do to facilitate, encourage and demonstrate this kind of conversation, the better our organizations will be.