So often we as leaders think the story that needs to be shared with followers is about business performance, the strategic vision, or the rationale for change. But by themselves, these stories often don’t lead to the deep inner engagement and sustained commitment we need from followers in order to accomplish what needs to get done. Instead, it is the leader’s own story that makes the difference, because it speaks to the heart and the mind of the follower.
When leaders take the time to share such stories, they are able to create more personal, trusting, and committed relationships with their followers. So let’s look at why it matters to know your story and how can you share it so as to engage the hearts and minds of your followers.
As children, we learn about life and how things happen through stories like Winnie the Pooh. As we grow up, we read the narratives of history and mythology as a means of digesting the increasing complexity of life and the impact of our decisions. As young adults, we draw upon the stories of others as a guide for what is possible in our work, our relationships, and our selves.
There is every reason to believe that the power of story to inform, inspire, and motivate is just as viable in our adult life, if not more so. As leaders, we are tasked with tackling new, different, and even seemingly impossible scenarios. You don’t need a leader if you’re doing what you already know how to do.
Leaders need a way to engage others at a more primal level. To allay followers’ natural discomfort with change and awaken their unproven potential, leaders must get beyond the mental boundaries of resistance and move into the heart space, where the possibility of emotional engagement lies.
Dave, the leader I have been discussing in prior posts, is an object lesson in why the leader’s story is a secret ingredient to creating great followers. Like many others, Dave had a natural inclination as a leader to tell it like it is—to get right to the point. He didn’t mince words about the company’s successes or failures, nor did he miss an opportunity to thank people for their hard work or ask them to put in more effort.
But Dave had a recurring complaint about his people: they just didn’t seem to care as much as he did about the business. No matter what incentives he offered to get them to go the extra mile, no matter how generous the rewards he handed out when they hit a goal, he never felt that people were engaged beyond just getting the job done and getting out by 5:00 p.m. Dave himself was a model of hard-working, open-to-learning, always-going-for-excellence behavior. He truly believed that his company could be the best in the industry, but he needed his colleagues to feel the same.
Dave worked with a mentor who suggested tapping into the power of his story to more deeply engage his followers. The story would help Dave’s people understand who he was, and how his life experiences animated his vision for the company and his expectations of his colleagues.
Dave decided to use his next quarterly staff meeting to share his story. Here’s what he said:
"I usually start off by giving you an update on our performance last quarter, what we learned and where our focus will be for the upcoming quarter. But I want to start off at a different place today, because I want us to go forward in a different way together.
As all of you know, I am deeply committed to being the best company in our industry. And I happen to think we are doing a lot of the right things to get us there, but I also believe there is more we can all get from our time here together. It’s more of an attitude about why we choose to be here—what we are doing that really matters to the world we serve and how we can each use this experience to become our best.
So let me share a little about why this is so important to me. I was raised in a hard-working immigrant family that looked out for each other. We didn’t have a lot, but we expected a lot of ourselves and from each other. Each generation found that the best way to succeed in life was to do something on its own. So we started businesses or took over as others died or moved on to other things.
I lost my Dad to heart disease when I was twelve, so as the oldest child of three, I took it upon myself to care for my mother and siblings. My uncle gave me a job in his car repair shop that he had co-owned with my Dad. I never worked so hard and had so much expected of me. But I learned what I was capable of doing and accomplishing with my life.
This business offers us all an opportunity to find out what we are capable of doing with our lives. The challenges are there, and our vision is clear. But it’s all about us: I envision an organization of like-minded people who want to be here for something more than the financial reward. I want people to be here because they can learn to become their best selves and help each other along the way. I invite you to join me in working together to become the best company in the industry by becoming the best people we can be."
The Action Plan
• What are the life experiences that you bring to your leading?
• How can you weave your life story into your expectations of where you want your organization to go?
• How will you know that you are truly engaging your followers?