Tell A Powerful Story

Are You A Heat-Seeking Leader?

I’ve just spent the past week meeting with a range of leaders to debrief their 360-degree feedback. They work for the same organisation, which is going through a sustained period of huge turbulence and change (sound familiar?) As the week unfolded, I noticed an interesting theme emerging: the leaders who were rated the most effective in this environment, by far, had similar patterns in their own backgrounds. More specifically:

  1. They’d experienced a significant degree of change and stretch in their own careers
  2. They’d made sense of their story and drawn strength and wisdom from it to apply in the situation they found themselves in now

Let’s break these points down a little more:

First, their career paths weren’t linear. Their backgrounds included multiple roles in different industries, often in different countries. While their career paths told a story of ongoing evolution, as most resumes do, there was something deeper at play. Their changes weren’t forced upon them – they created them themselves. There was something in their stories about the courage to break away from the norm and pursue some sort of calling, even though they knew it’d be difficult and scary. I’ve noticed that that’s been a pattern of mine in my own career. Taking the ‘road not taken’, as Robert Frost would say.

Road Less Travelled


Second, they were able to articulate what they’d learned from their experiences – they could tell their personal stories of change. Stories about learning to be confident and resilient in the face of the unknown, about learning to be compassionate with themselves and others, about discovering their where their real talents and passions lay. In short, stories of self-awareness and discovery. And, I suspect, because they’d integrated their experiences into their identity, they were able to more confidently lead themselves and others effectively in the testing time they found themselves in now.

I observed a certain ‘unflappableness’ about them – not detachment; on the contrary, they were purposeful and passionate about making a difference – but more that they were like the person who steers the whitewater raft – there’s craziness all around them, but they’ve been similar situations before, and have a deep confidence in their ability to navigate the volatility. My guess is that you’ll agree that our organisations could do with more of this ability in this in our VUCA world.

These people are what I’d call ‘heat-seeking’ leaders – they’ve learned that discomfort and challenge is good for their own growth, and they seek it out rather than avoid it. And it’s something that you can do too, starting today.

If you think you could do with a bit more confidence about how you lead yourself, and others, through the turbulence you’re experiencing, try these ideas out:

  1. Remind yourself that you’ve experienced change all your life. Tap into your pivotal experiences – what have they taught you that you can draw on now? I’ve written specifically about learning to tell your story here – use the tools to help you.
  2. Get back in touch with your own purpose or calling. What it is that drives you forward each day, how do you want to make a difference? Listen out for the clues. Write them down. Use these tools to help you.
  3. Cultivate the habit of taking the first step, the one you don’t want to take, into the challenge you face today. Don’t plan it all out. Just step forward. David Whyte’s wonderful poem ‘Start Close In’ gives wise words here.

I’m left with questions about how our organisations could attract and develop more deliberately heat-seeking people, and cultivate a culture that includes that heat-seeking aspect. What would it be like it that was the norm? What would it take? Questions for another post, I think.

For now, let’s keep it focused on what you might do differently for yourself, as all change starts here. And let’s let Robert Frost give us the final words:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—  

I took the one less traveled by,   

And that has made all the difference.   

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Leader, Find Your Voice

In the not-so-distant past, I got feedback that some people around me didn’t know what I stood for. Ouch. No one wants to get feedback like that, especially when you’re in a leadership role. It would have been so easy for me to get defensive and make it their problem. But I sat with the feedback for a while, and I realised that perhaps I’d lost touch with what I really stood for, and that was showing up in how I behaved.

If you were asked ‘what do you stand for?’, how fluently could you respond?

In my experience, this is a common challenge. Too many people in leadership roles don’t know what they stand for, or can’t articulate it. What we end up getting is people who can’t, or don’t, challenge the status quo, so don’t help us move towards a better future. Or, worse, they allow stuff to happen that shouldn’t happen. Case in point: here’s a story about how plane crashes happen when co-pilots don’t speak up *. Not good.

Part of the problem is cultural (i.e. it’s not safe to be yourself around here, you need to toe the party line) and part of this is individual (what is my voice?). If you want to change the culture, start with yourself.

Here’s a simple model that helps us make sense of the elements at play here. We need both to know our purpose, and have the strength or courage to speak it.

Voice on Purpose Model

If you’ve got a voice, but it doesn’t reflect what you really stand for, it’s kind of hollow. You often see these people who swing their weight around in meetings, but don’t really have much useful to say.

On the other hand, if you’ve got a sense of what you’re about, but don’t have the courage or conviction to put it out there, the world’s missing out. And you’re stunted. A friend of mine once remarked ‘it’s like you’re a racehorse running around in a paddock that’s too small for you’.

But when you have clarity of purpose, and a strong voice, you’re unstoppable. You’re authentic, and people want a piece of that. You stand by your convictions, and influence people with your message. And research by The Leadership Circle shows a strong correlation (.78) between authenticity and leadership effectiveness.

Cover bands don’t change the world**. The best songs are the originals. We love the musicians who sing from the heart, and whose music resonates with us. We need leaders who have something to heartfelt and authentic to say. They are the catalysts to help us change the world.

Where to start? With purpose.

How to connect with what you’re about:

  1. Review your life stories by completing the Story Mining activity.
  2. Seek feedback about you at your best by completing the Four Questions activity.
  3. Define your one word by completing the One Word activity.

This work isn’t easy. But it’s essential to do if you want to make a positive and lasting impact as a leader. Leader, find your voice.


* Thanks Alex Smith for the inspiration!

** And I’ve got to thank the crew at Accidental Creative for this great line.

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What’s Your Story?

Stories. When you think about it, they’re all around us, and inside our heads. All day, every day. In fact, psychologist Robin Dunbar’s research suggests we are telling stories 65% of the time (a lot of the time, it’s gossip, but they are still stories). We all seem to use stories to communicate and connect in ways that seem to come pretty naturally.

So, when I say to groups of managers ‘use storytelling to really engage your people’, you’d expect they’d respond ‘of course!’

But more often than not, they don’t. When you say ‘storytelling’ to many managers., it conjures up images of sitting on their child’s bed at bedtime, reading Dr Suess. It’s stuff you do with kids, not at work.

Earlier this week, I was running a storytelling workshop with a group of managers. First, we discussed some of their day-to-day people challenges. Then, we discussed what a great story does to you. Here are their answers, compared side-by-side:

 My People Challenges. How do I  get people to:  Great Stories:
 ‘Get it’?  Aid understanding
 Be excited and engaged?  Provoke emotion
 Change?  Change behaviour
 Care?  Create empathy
 Stop and think?  Cause reflection
 Be inspired to step up?  Inspire you

When we made the link, I think they got it.

The most influential people are the ones who can tell engaging stories – ones that have us paying attention, keening for the message, caring about the outcome. There’s an emerging body research that backs this idea up, including how powerful stories influence the aspects of our brain chemistry linked to attention and empathy.

So where to start?

Here’s a model that I use when teaching storytelling:


In essence, to influence with a story,you need to share an idea (point, message) using an approach that is tailored to your audience.

If you want to strengthen your storytelling muscle, start with your ideas. Because we are our stories. We define ourselves by our experiences, or more specifically, the lessons we take from those experiences, and what they tell us about ourselves and the world. When we tell those stories purposefully and authentically, we do so both to make sense of our experiences, and to influence others in a positive way.

Identify your stories. You’ve got life experience – what do you know? What experiences have shaped how you see the world? Use this easy Story Mining technique to do a bit of digging.

Of course, that’s not the whole picture. You need to be able to take your stories and craft them into something that:

  • has relevance for the audience you’re speaking to,
  • suits both your and their preference (e.g. timeframe, visual aids, style etc.), and
  • influences them in the way you intend to (e.g. excite, entertain, engage, educate)

What’s your story? In fact, I bet you have more than one. Go find out.

For more on how to have the impact you want to make, get in touch with me for a chat.


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