Monday, December 10, 2012

Lessons from WDW #6: Storytelling

I'm really interested in the notion that good leaders are good storytellers. I first came across this idea in a #DThink chat that I participated in. Later, this post on the Disney Institute Blog fleshed out this idea further for me. This feels true to me because in order to effectively lead, you need to be able to win the hearts and minds of the people you would wish to lead. Carrots and sticks will only get you so far in this regard, and extrinsic incentives certainly won't work for the sustained amount of time that it takes to lead a group to change.

Change is difficult, and quite naturally we resist it even when confronted with an objectively clear need for change. Some people resist change actively by pushing back on changes to their environment or workflow. Other people resist change passively by refusing to do anything more than act compliantly. This passive resistance is worse because all it requires is a willingness to be disengaged. Moving a group of people who won't even engage in the conversation is extremely difficult and requires a gifted leader who can draw people into a vision for success

To me, this is where storytelling comes in. We are all narrative creatures by nature. We enjoy good stories and tend to identify ourselves with the heroes of those stories. We paint ourselves as the heroes of our own stories as well. Hollywood and the rest of the entertainment industry know just how to appeal to our desire for stories that satisfy our basic drives and for characters in whom we can see ourselves. Indeed, the stories they tell all follow a very familiar formula that can be boiled down to moving from a state of chaos, unrealized potential or brokenness to a state of order, realized potential or perfection. These stories appeal to our need to make a difference, achieve justice and live happily ever after.

The power of a compelling story can inspire people to action (or reflection) with more force than a mountain of irrefutable data. Paint me a picture of a better world that I can believe in (even if i can't see it), and I will work tirelessly to get there despite the rocks in the road because I become part of the story of the people who strove to get there. Fail to inspire me with the story of our work, and I feel disconnected from the work. Yes, it's my job, but it's not my life. Realism sets in, and frankly, nothing of consequence will come from a room full of realists.

Good storytellers can keep the eyes of the people they lead focused on the promise of the story, rather than the difficulties of the process. In doing so, they reap the benefits of a motivated team committed to a shared goal instead of a group of skeptical individuals whose focus is divided and potentially fractious. Good leaders invite those they lead to align their aspirations and passion to the story of the work. Good leaders invite others to co-author the story of their shared succes by creating a story that is clear enough to capture the imagination, but undefined enough to allow others to become characters in the unfolding story.

Note that the storyteller does not impose a story of change. The story is not what makes the change. Rather, it is the story that inspires the listener to believe in his or her own power to affect change. In education, no system can ever be imposed on teachers and students that will create real, important and lasting change. That sort of change happens when a shared narrative of change takes hold of the imaginations of teachers, learners, and the community, and then empowers everyone to contribute to that narrative.

The power of a good storyteller can, of course, be used for ill. History is full of great storytellers who so enthralled their followers that they were able to take them down dark paths, and we do well to remember that when we assess the stories of the places we work, worship and play. But we also need to be able to suspend our disbelief enough to let ourselves become "part of the story." If we are so shut off from possibility that we can't be inspired, then our skepticism becomes our expectation, and we will never outperform the status quo. If we are too afraid or too jaded to believe in our own power to affect change, then our narrative becomes one of hopelessness and futility, and our work becomes drudgery. A great storyteller can weave a narrative that will re-ignite a person's belief in their own power to make a difference. A great storyteller can create a message of hope that mobilizes listeners to work harder than they ever have because they want to be part of the story that brought that message to life.

In this sense, storytelling becomes part of the leader's role as culture-maker. The most functional of working environments are ones in which there is a clear culture that invites everyone to care about the success of the work. A positive culture is reinforced by its stories. We convey our values through stories. We learn lessons through stories. We caution those new to a culture through stories that have consequences for the protagonists, but we also offer the promise of the next chapter that will include new contributions from new contributors. When our leaders are great storytellers, they invite us to see ourselves as heros in stories that matter.

photo credit: andy castro via photopin cc

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