Compassionate Storytelling: A Vital Skill for Leadership

As a leader, a big part of your job is to help others understand your vision. You need to be a storyteller - with compassion. Here's why...

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Leadership and storytelling

Leadership is all about storytelling.

There are many great articles and books that support this, and provide advice and guidance to leaders on how to build their storytelling craft.  Stephen Denning's The Leader's Guide to Storytelling is an excellent example of this and there are others, including Howard Gardner, and more recently, Simon Sinek's Start with Why.  

Leadership Storytelling
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And it's easy to see why.  The unit of human language is the story.  It's not the word, or the sentence.  On their own, these lack context.  And only if an entire story is told in one word, or one sentence, do such things reach us on an emotional level.

What is leadership if not the art of influencing others to take action?  How better to do this than by telling a story?  A story about why it matters.  A story about how it might be achieved.  A story about what we've learned from the past.  A story about how the future might be even better.  A story about the better world we can live in if  we respond to the story's call.

What use are strategic plans, and business strategies, and corporate documents if they don't tell stories?  Who will remember them?  Who will act or engage with them?

The Neuroscience of Storytelling

We intuitively know that storytelling is compelling.  There are countless examples where – irrespective of the facts – opinion was swayed by a well-told and convincing story.  We only have to look at our political landscape, our court systems and the entertainment industry to ‘know' that this is true.  But why?

Communication is difficult.  There are so many conceptual and contextual filters that alter the message between its source and its receipt.  But stories – good stories – have a way of breaking through this.

Communication Evolution
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Evolutionarily, we're hardwired to love a good story.  And if you think about it, this makes sense.  Our prehistoric ancestors had no printing press, no paper, no computers, no twitter.  But they understood that knowledge had to be passed on to increase the likelihood that their offspring would survive.  It was a matter of life and death.

Stories, as compared with facts and figures and data, draw on more areas of our brain's processing capability.

  • Stories are mnemonic – they help us to remember by linking concepts and information together in a way that is ‘logical'.
  • Stories are emotional – they evoke the more ancient parts of our brains and trigger associations to other memories, thus making them more memorable
  • Stories have direction – they take us on a journey that we can relate to, because they follow a typical structure that we can anticipate and recognise, they follow arcs like the hero's journey
  • Stories have morality – they have recognisable characters, and elude to grand dichotomies like good and evil,  and generally, the good guys win
  • Stories are relatable – we can picture ourselves in that situation, and generally a good story will link back round to something we should do, feel or become – a call to action

The Morality of Storytelling

Aristotle is largely responsible for defining the art of rhetoric as we would regard it today – the ability to inform, persuade or influence an audience – usually to change their minds or behave/act in a particular way, but he studied under Plato, who decried rhetoric as a tool for deceiving people, rather than allowing them to discover the truth, likening it to flattery.Pillars of Morality

Unfortunately, like many things, storytelling can be used to achieve immoral ends.  History is littered with leaders who's powers of persuasion – often through storytelling – were used to devastating effect.  As I've already alluded above, there is frightening evidence from our adversarial court systems that lawyers who excel at storytelling can persuade a jury of the ‘truth' of their case even when the evidence (the facts and figures) do not support it.  Politicians with the ‘gift of the gab' will gain supporters simply because they related to them and connected with them, even in spite of their policy positions or capability to govern.  The con-man is incredibly convincing – with a well constructed story to support his craft.

How then, in good conscience, can we encourage leaders to draw upon their skills as storytellers?

Storytelling with Compassion

The answer lies not in the ‘how' but the ‘why'.

It is not about what tool to use, but to what ends it is being used.

Any leader who is grounded in a solid, ethical and authentic self can draw on these skills in pursuit of morally sound objectives.

But surely, you say, Hitler believed he was doing the right thing?

We'll never really know for sure, but one thing I do know, he lacked compassion.

So, if looking deep within, you are truly driven to compassionate ends, you can feel confident using storytelling to strengthen your influence and deepen your leadership.

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Rebecca Elvy

I am a human systems futurist committed to making organisations and individuals more effective through the power of mindful, insightful and proactive leadership.

I fundamentally believe that all people have the potential within them to achieve greatness. With my insights into the way systems work (and how to change them), how people communicate, and the way our own brains work (or don’t work) I strive to unleash this potential for the benefit of humankind.