In the past few weeks, we have seen a variety of ways in which Pope Francis has employed personal storytelling in his communication. As for any leader, personal storytelling is the most effective manner to illustrate “who I am” and “why I do things the way I do.” The pope’s personal stories of identity display his values and beliefs loudly and clearly.
Effective leaders express themselves through various types of personal stories of identity. Some of these stories express directly “who I am”. These are tales of where I come from, the origins of my values and beliefs, why I do things the way I do them, and why what I do is meaningful for me.
A second type of story of identity is what I have come to call a leader’s “worldview” stories. In one sense, these are also stories of “who I am”, but they speak more to a leader’s vision than to her character. These are about how I view the world and our situation today, where I see my group or organization going, and my dreams for the future.
One of the most powerful manifestations of the personal story of identity are leadership stories that I put in still a third category, and which I have come to call “stories of us”. These are the leader’s stories that extend the “who I am” to “who we are”, what we believe, and how we do things. In any group, these are the stories that bind people together in a shared culture.
When a leader’s stories ring true to the followers, and when they speak of characteristics and behaviors that the group seeks to espouse, these shared stories provide a sense of collective meaning. They convey concepts of where we are heading and what we can accomplish together. It is around these stories that leaders and followers co-create a community.
One of the intriguing elements of the pope’s personal storytelling is how quickly he has created a story that is becoming collective. To me, this ability to inspire with stories of a new and inclusive future for the Church is at the root of his popular appeal. And, he is able to speak credibly of inclusion and engagement of others because his discourse is completely authentic. These characteristics–the need to include and engage–have long distinguished his demeanor and his entire life’s work. Throughout his career, those who know him have pointed to his desire to go out and meet the people where they are, with empathy and humility, in an effort to connect with the world and all its diversity.
From his very first moments in office, he began sending messages–consciously or unconsciously–of his desire to bring people into his story. By walking out modestly onto the balcony and facing the crowd silently, by dressing plainly and with no signs of pompousness or superiority, by making unassuming gestures rather than majestic ones, and by asking others to say a prayer for him, he closed the distance between himself and the followers. He immediately became a leader who walked with his flock, rather than one who stood above them.