Management and Leadership Series Posted by Nicola Maxwell

At the heart of leadership, there is a paradox. It goes back thousands of years to the beginning of democracy. And here it is: we want our leaders to be just like us, and at the same time we want them to demonstrate that they are different to and better than us.  We want our leaders to understand and have the interests of people at heart, and we want to look up to them but also feel that in some way they are our equals. This way, we justify to ourselves that they deserve any privileges granted by their position.

How can leaders can address this paradox?

By telling great stories. Great stories that connect with our common humanity.  In a world of instantaneous communication, a leader’s reputation can be tarnished by social media commentary.  Note the recent commentary on Australian Prime Minister, Scott Morrison’s response to the bushfire crisis.  More than ever our leaders need to engage, inspire and impress their followers. The most effective way of doing this is by telling stories about who they are (their origins), what they stand for (beliefs, values and collective purpose), how they overcame adversity or a challenge (resilience) and where they are heading (vision of the future). Good, honest stories are what people want to hear as a guide to the ‘real person’.

Behind every great leader there is always a great story. Leadership stories should run through the fabric of the leader’s communication whether that be formal or informal, 1:1 or in groups, one-way, two-way or in writing. They should be told authentically and honestly and when they are, they will be reinforced when others repeat the story on their behalf.

When we talk about leadership stories it is sometimes perceived as something quite abstract, yet most of us will know who “The iron lady”, “The boy from Hope”, “The people’s princess” and “The chosen one” are.  An honest personal story of hardship helps connect a leader with their followers and can demonstrate resilience at the same time. Think about Barack Obama who came from a broken home with his tough, itinerant childhood or Bill Clinton whose father died before he was born, had an abusive stepfather and a brother with multiple personal problems. These are examples of ’origin’ and ‘resilience’ stories consciously chosen to connect with followers.

When we think of Richard Branson, we think of the risk taking, cheeky, entrepreneurial, anti-establishment outsider. The late Anita Roddick was the pioneering entrepreneur of green consciousness and a fighter for human rights and environmental issues. Bill Gates and Steve Jobs were the geeky college drop-outs who valued creativity, outside thinking.  The former, realising he had no need for money, set up the Gates Foundation valuing diversity, equality, inclusion and optimism believing that solving some big world problems like malaria and polio can be done by creativity and innovation. These examples highlight the ‘origin’ and ‘identity’ stories.  The respected leader Oprah Winfrey once stated that everyone has a calling but, “You cannot determine what yours is unless you take time to actually know who you are and why you’re here”.

So, at a time when our somewhat politically incorrect leaders are seeking “weirdos and misfits” to apply for jobs in a shake-up of the civil service in the UK, a recruitment consultant would do well to match Lady Gaga, who describes herself by saying, “I’m a weirdo (who am I), I overcame bullying and sexual abuse (resilient), we are all outsiders (collective purpose) and can change the world (vision)”. From a personal perspective, let’s hope she sticks to song writing and performance where she excels.

Great leaders may have many qualities. Unfortunately, if they cannot tell their stories with authenticity they will fail to connect with their followers.


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