By Theodore Kinni
Theodore Kinni has written, ghosted, or edited more than 20 business books. He was book review editor for strategy+business for 7 years.
There’s been a lot written about the power of storytelling in business. In fact, the concept has become mainstream enough that one company recently hired a bestselling novelist as its chief storytelling officer.
Stories can be used for lots of purposes in business. Annette Simmons calls out six of them in Whoever Tells the Best Story Wins: How to Use Your Own Stories to Communicate with Power and Impact : “who am I” stories; “why I’m here” stories; “vision” stories; “values in action” stories; “teaching” stories; and “I know what you’re thinking” stories.
As a leader, you can pick and choose among these different types of stories, but in Your Leadership Story: Use Your Story to Energize, Inspire, and Motivate, Timothy J. Tobin, Marriott International’s vice president of global learning and leadership development, makes a pretty compelling argument that you should always start with a story that is about yourself. Crafting such a story is as much about clarifying how you view your self and your situation as it is about communicating who you are to others.
Tobin sees your own story as an amalgam of several of Simmons’ story types, including who am I, why I’m here, and vision and values stories. “Your leadership story communicates the message of identity: who you are as a leader, what you believe in, what drives you and defines you as a leader, and how you act,” writes Tobin.
Why do you need to tell this story about yourself? “If you do not take primary authorship of your story, it will be crafted exclusively through the perceptions of others,” explains Tobin. “And… others’ interpretations may not be accurate. Or worse, their motivations may not support your story.”
Crafting your leadership story is a lot like writing a novel: It includes plot, characters, conflict, theme, and setting.
The plot of your story explains why you do what you do. “It focuses on what provides you with a sense of purpose,” says Tobin. “It clarifies and reinforces your values as a leader.”
The protagonist or central character in this story is you. But because leadership is not a solo act, it also includes the people you work with and defines your relationships with them. “The other characters in your leadership story can serve as champions, or protagonists, or they can be detractors, or antagonists,” says Tobin. “You must identify who the key characters of your story are, what their role is, and their perceptions of your story.”
Conflict, the third element, can be a struggle with people or uncertainty in the business environment or a challenge in marketplace. Whatever the specific conflict is, there must be some kind of struggle to drive your leadership story forward. “The objective here is for you to build your awareness about the sources of conflict and how you respond to conflict as a leader,” says Tobin. “It requires awareness about the situations that cause conflict, your preferred or comfortable response, and the impact that your response has on others around you.”
The theme of your leadership is its main idea, and that idea is defined and described through your behaviors, skills, and habits. “The theme of a leadership story is about characteristics and competence,” says Tobin. “It is what you do well and perhaps not so well, and, once again, self-awareness of it is essential. Self-awareness and acceptance of boundaries is the pathway to freedom. Knowing your abilities and even your limitations–regarding what you are capable of, interested in, and willing to do–can be quite liberating.”
Setting, the final element, is where your story takes place. It plays a critical role in shaping your plot, introducing you to characters, and developing your theme. “The setting for your leadership story is about geographical location and the organization you work for, and it is also about the work itself,” writes Tobin. “For many of us, our story has evolved in a variety of settings over time and may continue to evolve. Even if we don’t change settings, the environment around us might change, so we still must be aware of our setting and how it is working for us. You should also consider how you as a leader foster a sense of pride in the work you do and where you do it.”
Although storytelling in business is usually focused on communicating to others (whether they be investors, employees, customers, or partners), it occurs to me that Tobin’s conception of a leadership story is more than that. Crafting a story like this is a personal exercise in awareness and empowerment. If you find that your leadership story isn’t as satisfying as you might desire, remember that it’s your story and you can write it and rewrite it however you want.
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