It is tempting to think that if we just learn the techniques of storytelling we’ll be able to tell a compelling “leadership story” when we need one. But unless we know who we are and what matters to us we cannot authentically stand for anything; unless we open ourselves to other peoples’ stories we cannot expect them to be open to ours; unless we are willing to commit ourselves to something that is grounded in reality and helps people connect with worthwhile purposes we are merely peddling dreams or – worse – trying to manipulate others for our advantage. And these three elements of what I call Narrative Leadership are intimately and inextricably connected.
The metaphor of a tree expresses the relationships between the elements in a lively and dynamic way: the roots of the tree represent the practice of know thyself; the branches and leaf canopy correspond to only connect; the trunk symbolises stand for something. The tree draws sustenance from deep roots which anchor it firmly and enable it to grow: the stronger the root system the greater its potential to support and feed a substantial trunk and an extensive canopy of interconnected branches, twigs and leaves (through which it can absorb and convert light into chemical energy). A healthy tree is able to make the most of the resources and opportunities in its environment, contributing to the eco-system as well as benefiting from it.
Like a tree, our leadership practice grows organically. As we come to know ourselves better, our roots deepen and we tap the source of our sense of purpose and vocation; as we reach out and connect with other people we better understand what the world is calling for; nourished by a sure sense of who we are and what is needed, we can find the courage and determination to stand for what really matters. We flourish and grow as leaders by attending not just to one or two, but to all three practices together.
What is the alternative? Weak rooted trees and people topple in the wind; they wither if they don’t put out branches and leaves; they remain stunted if they don’t develop a strong trunk. Know thyself; only connect; stand for something.
To read more about the art of narrative leadership, read my new book Telling the Story: The Heart and Soul of Successful Leadership published next month by Wiley/Jossey-Bass. Click on the image below to access a special 30% pre-publication discount and to read and download a free sample chapter.