Though there is certainly more to write about hero stories and their role in business, I am choosing to leave that topic for another occasion, and to instead give an update on my recent writing activity.
In fact, during the past weeks, much of my attention has focused on completing my latest book, which is about “leading by autobiography”. The book describes my method of coaching a leader to become an inspirational communicator, a process of learning to express oneself through the telling of authentic personal stories of identity. Since audiences at my leadership seminars in 2011 often asked why I have not written a book about the coaching techniques I use with them, I hope to soon be able to say that the book is here.
While my primary purpose in writing it is to elucidate a coaching process, the book can also be used as a path for self-study about leadership communication, a path that anyone can embark upon and benefit from. By showing how the leaders I coach learn to communicate, with an in-depth example that we follow through the entire journey, I would like to incite readers to follow similar courses of action, with or without a coach.
The book is also, at least indirectly, a reflection on the age-old question: What exactly constitutes effective leadership? For, if I have come to coach leaders in the particular way I do, it is in part because I feel that our society has gone astray in its views of what true leadership is and how leaders should communicate.
My recent re-immersion in this writing project has provided me the opportunity to revisit some of my views on the role of storytelling in a leader’s communication.
When they attend my conferences, people often ask me how I came to believe so much in the power of story and storytelling. On the one hand, the answer is straightforward. As a coach of leaders and entrepreneurs, I came to believe in it because it works. Leaders inspire and teach with their stories of identity.
On the other hand, if the concept of storytelling has taken center stage in much of the work I do today, my own path to discovering it was somewhat circuitous.
As I look back, I think that even as a schoolboy I observed my teachers and coaches with a certain fascination for how leaders communicate. Why are some individuals so effective at motivating those around them with their words?
This interest in how leaders motivate continued into adulthood and throughout my years of running businesses and observing leaders. Thus, when I decided to do doctoral study, I chose to explore the question of a leader’s discourse and the elements that make it effective. My research led me unequivocally to the conclusion that the most powerful and inspirational forms of communication are story-based.
Simultaneously, my early practice as a teacher and as a coach of business leaders was lending parallel insights. As I began prodding others to find and tell their stories of identity, I discovered along with my clients and students the true power of personal narrative.
Today, with more than 15 years of experience in the field and with an ever-growing interest in self-expression, I observe with increased attention and awareness what works best in the speeches or presentations of business and political figures. Time and again I am led to the same conclusion: Outstanding leaders weave their life experience into personal stories that they use to teach, motivate and influence others.
When I hear the speeches of inspirational leaders, I observe again and again the impact of storytelling on a group of listeners. For an example of this phenomenon, one need look no further than the 2008 US presidential election. Throughout the campaign, Barack Obama was masterful as a storyteller, relying on his personal stories of identity to move audiences in nearly all of his speeches.
And, storytelling is not just for politicians and CEOs. It is an increasingly important skill in today’s world, whenever convincing and inspiring others is the goal. I am convinced that storytelling—when it is personal and authentic—is the most effective way to present ideas in many contexts: sharing knowledge with one’s employees and colleagues, presenting to venture capitalists, selling one’s product or service, or making public statements.
One caveat about storytelling, however: With the many arguments I make in favor of story-based discourse, people sometimes conclude that I advocate abandoning abstract analysis, throwing away all our slides, and presenting everything in story form.
My view of the role of story is less radical. In many situations, storytelling and rational argument can and should complement each other. What I do often tell my audiences and my clients is that storytelling is underutilized in modern-day communication, and that we would do well to rediscover its power.