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Storytelling : A Key Leadership Trait in Challenging Times

“I HAVE A DREAM” that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed. We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal

Martin Luther King’s simple yet prophetic STORY captured the imagination of a nation where inequality and racism were the norm. His oratory skills and powerful narrative were the instruments that literally rearranged American History. He painted a picture of an America so ideal that it provided the fuel to create monumental change. That is the impeccable power of a clearly defined story.

From Martin Luther King to Mahatma Gandhi, down to Jacinda Ardern, the most powerful leaders have been those that have crafted an authentic narrative, bridging ideologies with mass empathy for desired effect, amidst crisis.

Currently as the global economy has been hijacked by a mutated virus, global brands armed with their leaders grapple with the task of fast paced contextual re-invention. The complexity of the situation is compounded as every possible query seems to have an answer on a click. Leaders will therefore be persistently tested to ensure their communication is timely, pertinent and succinct.   

In my own experience I have found that at critical corporate junctures, such as company turnarounds, the narrative at play must be strong enough to be the ‘reason to believe’. A powerful story acts as a glue that aligns stakeholders and ensures every individual in the organization understands what is in it for him. When this is followed by timely action, it helps everyone see their role in the bigger picture and achieving the desired goal.

As any psychologist would explain, a good story provides a stimulus and engages the senses producing dopamine, a feel good hormone that can be released when there is a strong identification with the narrative.

Thus, a good narrative during crisis would include the following components:

1.    Humility and complete ownership (individual or broader leadership team) of the task at hand including a personal stake in the issue-.

2.    Expression of solidarity highlighting the struggle and/or discomfort for everyone.

3.    A strong message of hope in the potential solution/s with the audience as the central beneficiary.

4.    A clear call to action for the audience.

5.    The language must be direct and simple, with short sentences that do not tax the listener. (The post Covid19 era will see comically short attention spans despite technology facilitating remote connectivity – hence The stress on utilizing simple and direct language will increase exponentially.)

6.    Finally, the story needs to be consistentwell rehearsed, backed by authentic data & timely action.

We are, as a species, addicted to story. Even when the body goes to sleep, the mind stays up all night, telling itself stories

– Jonathan Gottschall 

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