Storytelling and manipulation

Storytelling and manipulation

Last week, I spoke at the Grenoble Graduate School of Business to a group of visiting masters-level students from London and Singapore.  These individuals were in France for a “personal development week”, and my session was about some of the “myths and realities” that I have discovered in my research and coaching of leaders.

When I evoked one of my favorite concepts, what I call “leading by autobiography”, I made one of my recurring points about storytelling—that effective leaders inspire others with their authentic stories of identity.

As happens often, someone in the audience asked the intelligent question: “Where do we draw the line between a leader’s storytelling and manipulation?”  Of course, this is a vast issue, not an easy one to address in a quick and brief response.

When this question of manipulation arises, I often emphasize three points.  First of all, we should not see storytelling as a panacea; it does have its limits and dangers, one of which is crossing the “border” to manipulation.  Second, whenever I speak of the coaching I do involving leadership and storytelling, or of the leaders I admire, I emphasize two words: authentic stories of identity. It is not only about becoming a good storyteller; it is about learning to tell stories that express our character and true nature.  My third point is that we should perhaps avoid discussing modern-day politics, since I have grown somewhat skeptical about politicians and their authenticity.  That said, I remain an interested observer of storytelling in politics, and I plan a blog post soon on the subject of authenticity and fabrication in political stories.

While authenticity in politics may still be possible, my view is that it seems to be ever more difficult for candidates to tell an authentic story.  Teams of consultants and advisors scan opinion polls daily, and they make their living telling candidates and public officials what the people want to hear.  With election or re-election as their overriding concern, leaders in the public arena seem increasingly willing to adapt their messages to conform to the wishes of the populace. From the voter’s perspective, it is often difficult to determine which of the candidate’s stories are real and which are mostly fabrications of consultants, handlers, or spin doctors.

Thus, I prefer to examine the concept of authentic stories of identity outside the realm of politics.  Managers in business, in not-for-profit enterprises, in the arts or on sports teams, interact with their followers and stakeholders on a regular basis.  They have direct contact and relationships with many individuals, all of whom will decide if their leader’s stories are authentic and credible.  Business leaders must tell and live authentic stories because their world is more about building and maintaining trust with their stakeholders every day, as opposed to wooing voters once in each periodic electoral cycle.

In the coming weeks, we will revisit the subject of storytelling, authenticity, and manipulation…both in politics and business.

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