In my first meeting with Aman and Sameer, the co-founders of boAt, I was immediately captivated by their story. They talked about how they met, how they launched the boAt brand, their initial struggles, the nay-sayers who who wrote them off, the boAtheads who believed in them and their inspiring purpose to build an amazing lifestyle brand. It was refreshing to meet founders who were not afraid of being vulnerable. The stories that they shared were deeply personal. I became very excited to become part of their mission.
Stories are deeply intertwined with our perception of leadership ability. The impact of narrative can be seen across the spectrum – from icons such as Gandhi and Nelson Mandela, to fictional superheroes like Batman and Wonder Woman, to modern-day role models like Steve Jobs and Oprah Winfrey.
Yet, somehow, most leaders in the corporate arena (with tech being a key exception) have traditionally shied away from sharing stories about themselves. In her Harvard Business Review piece, Gia Storms notes:
It was once believed that scrubbing notions of the self from presentations and regulating emotions at all cost was key to being perceived as an effective leader. However, it’s becoming increasingly clear that in order to inspire people to follow you, sharing personal stories with vulnerability, humor, and humility allows audiences to see you as human and thus be inspired by you.
So, this week, my message focuses on the power of leadership stories and how to craft and share your own leadership narrative.
In our personal as well as professional life, authenticity offers an effective way to build trust. When we believe someone is showing us their real self, we tend to trust them more. This is a vital lesson for leaders to learn. All too often, being in a position of authority can shackle you with invisible chains. Excessive formality, being hyper-focused on end results, a reluctance to share personal details…these factors can make it tough for leaders to form meaningful relationships with team members and inspire them.
Allowing people to glimpse the real you, and your journey as a leader, is a great way to demonstrate authenticity.
Moreover, when leaders share personal stories, they give their team members permission to do the same. This helps to create a culture of dialogue and connection, where it is okay to be human and go beyond your “business self”. Telling stories also allows groups to forge a common language, ethos and identity.
Craft your leadership stories
Here are nine recommendations to help you develop and share your leadership stories:
1. Decide what you want to convey.
Setting the intention for your leadership stories is a vital first step. Reflect on your core values and principles, as well as the message you want to convey to your audience. As you choose which stories to share, stay closely aligned with your authentic self.
2. Create a story bank.
If you aren’t a born storyteller, it’s a good idea to develop a collection of personal stories. A good starting point is to identify 3-5 leadership lessons you’ve learned over the years. This exercise will surely help you discover tales worth sharing. An effective leadership narrative needs a few key elements: it should be memorable, it must have an element of drama, and it should reveal something personal and meaningful about you. Write down the stories and narrate them aloud so you can get really comfortable with them.
3. Share stories of failure.
While they may not come naturally to many leaders, stories centred around failure offer multiple benefits. They create a sense of closeness and trust. They humanise failure, allowing your audience to view it as a learning opportunity. They inspire people in a way that is different from success, with more of a focus on resiliency.
Identify 2-3 instances of failure that have been pivotal in your leadership journey. If you don’t feel comfortable sharing them right away, a bit of preparation can help you get there. Write the stories down or try narrating them in private to a loved one. Like any skill, being vulnerable gets easier with practice.
4. Draw a line between personal and private.
As a leader, the goal is to be open and relatable – without oversharing. As you develop your narrative, you might wonder whether to include certain personal details or strong emotions. At this point, ask yourself: Will including this serve my intention? Or is it just a shortcut to stirring up the listeners’ feelings? Try to maintain a depth of vulnerability that serves your purpose and your audience.
5. Broaden the scope of your origin story.
The stories we tell ourselves (and others) shape who we become over time. In one study, researchers focused on the way in which leaders understood their “origin story”, i.e. when they first felt like a leader and why. The study found that sticking to a rigid, one-dimensional origin story could limit your ability to experiment with different leadership styles. The researchers give the following examples:
For example, if you only see yourself as a leader when and if others are following you (accepting), your identity may be highly tied to the perceptions of others, which could hold you back from claiming a new leader role unless you’re “asked” to by others…. If you “have always been a leader” (being), it may be difficult to let someone else, especially someone with a different style, assume a leadership role in a team of your peers.
In order to increase your adaptability as a leader, try to construct different types of origin stories for yourself. Can you come up with a narrative in which you were always a leader? Was there a moment when facilitating someone else’s success made you feel like a leader? Think of a time when others expected you to navigate the way. Developing a variety of stories enables you to view your leadership through a variety of lenses – a valuable tool for those who want to stay nimble and keep evolving.
6. Borrow effective techniques.
Study the methods used by other storytellers. TED Talks offer a great resource: go back to your favourites and watch for moments that resonate with you most. What creates that feeling of connection? How does the speaker structure their story? Try to incorporate these learnings into your own storytelling. If you’re feeling hesitant, lower the stakes – rehearse new, unfamiliar techniques with family or friends.
7. Share what is on your mind.
Leadership narratives don’t always have to be grand, complex or in the past. You can also weave simple everyday stories into meetings, conversations and presentations. Narrate thought-provoking incidents from your personal life, or share how you’re feeling about current events – this will give your audience a valuable insight into who you are. Over time, these small fragments come together to form the picture of an authentic leader.
8. Normalise vulnerability.
Research shows that leaders who build ongoing emotional resonance reap rich rewards in terms of social connection. The above-mentioned HBR article offers some good advice:
Find quick and easy ways of inserting your vulnerability. Tag your statements with phrases like “my feeling is,” “it feels scary to share this,” or “I hesitated to bring this forward” – they peel back the curtain on your thinking and build a connection with your audience.
9. Keep fine-tuning stories.
Leadership stories are inherently dynamic. Executive coach Henna Inam advises leaders to continue layering their stories over time:
Our everyday experiences give us lots of fodder for continuing to develop, refine and add texture to our leadership story. If you are journaling as part of your leadership practices, use your journaling time to reflect on lessons learned. As you learn new lessons, add to your repertoire of stories. Your personal brand, your leadership lessons and your stories are dynamic and continue to unfold with your experiences.
Stories have immense power – and there is nothing more effective than a true story. Authentic narratives resonate deeply with team members, enabling them to form a meaningful connection with their leader. So, share your personal leadership stories to build trust, loyalty and inspiration in your team.