The Key Skill Every Leader Needs To Inspire From Afar During “Uncertain Times”
Last month, the consulting firm Odgers Berndtson asked 2,000 senior executives at $50mm+ companies around the world how confident they were about their leaders’ abilities to handle disruption.
Only 15 percent of them said they were confident that their leaders could manage unexpected events like pandemics, shifting technology, or climate change.
That’s not good. Because we’re having a lot of all three of those things these days.
What exactly led these executives to believe that their leaders weren’t going to be able to cut it? The two biggest reasons they cited were the following:
- Resistance to change
- Lack of vision
We’re going to need leaders who can manage the disruptions coming in our future. But many of us are having a hard time managing the giant disruption now that is COVID-19.
And let me tell you, many of them are not inspiring much on the vision or the change front:
Inboxes are overflowing with versions of this exact same uninspiring CEO message from every airline, tax prep software, and hot dog stand we’ve ever done business with. If these emails have taught us one thing, it’s that the process of making sure you don’t inspire change or vision as a leader during “uncertain times” is only 5 simple steps:
- Announce that these are unprecedented times.
- Say something nice involving hearts and thoughts.
- Make a vague “commitment” that is actually a brag about how great your company is.
- Give people the link to the CDC website.
- Congratulate your PR team on how authentic you are.
Many of my own clients and newsletter readers say that they’re worried about how to effectively lead and communicate from afar, now that they aren’t working physically side by side with their teams. And they’re right to worry. We need to be able to do better than crappy emails with vague promises and non-apologetic damage control.
If there was one recommendation I could make to leaders that could dramatically help with all of these things, it would be this:
Stop making platitudes, and start telling real stories.
Stories make us feel connected to each other and our leaders. A leader who is able to tell great stories in the right ways will inspire trust and motivate people to overcome obstacles.
Many of the leaders who don’t inspire confidence in their people certainly have good plans. But that doesn’t just translate to trust. But making one change—framing where we need to go and how we need to get there using storytelling—can.
The Power Of Framing Change Via Stories
Times are tough. You need people to change the way they do things. You need them to trust you enough to follow your plan. 10-4!
Unfortunately, if you’re like most people, the approach your instincts will tell you to build that trust is probably going to backfire.
Let’s say that you’ve been working on a team for some time, and a new leader is brought in to move things forward. After a few days, this new leader pulls everyone on the team together for a PowerPoint with all the bullets and stats about their new plan for how the team is going to totally transform.
In this scenario, there is a 100% chance that the new leader will meet resistance. The newer they are to the group when they hold this PowerPoint fest, the more resistance. But even if they’ve done their due diligence, asking a team to make big changes is never easy.
We’ve all seen change initiatives come and go. Some people might just hold out and wait for this one to die too.
Now let’s say that instead of a PowerPoint, the leader sits everyone down and has the group talk about the team’s story. What’s the mythology of how the team got started? What was the intention? What were the obstacles? How did the team get through them? What were the wins, the losses, the successes, the failures that taught them and made them better? What got the team here?
Then let’s say the leader shared their story. Where they come from. What got them here. The stories of events and people who made them care about what this team is up against. And after that: the story of what the team is up against now—their intentions and obstacles—and what the future would look like when the team overcomes those.
And only then, in the context of that history, let’s say the leader presented their case for what the team needed to change in order to get there.
What got us here isn’t going to get us to where we need to go next. So we’re going to draw on the same spirit that helped us write our story so far, and we’re going to do what we need to tackle the next chapter.
What a huge difference in approach! (And I don’t need to tell you which one is more likely to work…)
The psychology at play here—what makes this story-based approach effective—is fascinating. A storytelling strategy like the above does two things:
First, reminiscing and sharing in the nostalgia of one’s history makes one much more open to making changes. Warm stories of good times passed prime us to feel comfortable and excited about whatever’s bundled in with them.
This is why nostalgia is such a powerful tool in advertising. It’s why Nintendo memes are so effective with people born in the ‘80s. It’s why people love Baby Yoda so much. These stories’ familiarity delights our brains—which gets us on board with the novelty.
Second, sharing personal stories—stories about human beings that a team can relate to—builds empathy and trust. Science is clear that when we open up to others, we’re sending signals that we can be trusted, and people tend to reciprocate that. When this happens, our brains secrete the chemical oxytocin, which makes us feel empathetic and emotionally engaged:
Sharing your story kickstarts this trust loop much more reliably than sharing your game plan all by itself.
Great Storytelling Will Help You Stand Out As A Leader
Leadership is inherently about standing out. And yet how many “leaders” do we see right now parroting the exact same thing as everyone else?
I don’t know about you, but my inbox is currently clogged with lengthy emails about various CEOs’ commitment during these “unprecedented times.”
Contrast this with every great leader in the movies.
Heroic movie leaders always rally people via a story. The coach gets the team pumped up in the locker room by talking about the journey and the prize—not by reading off a list of talking points and industry jargon that every other coach is saying too.
In other words, if what you’re sending to your employees and clients could scratch off a Pandemic Buzzword BINGO, then you’re telling the same story everyone else is—and not showing leadership.
So what makes for a great story—one that can engage human emotion, paint a vision, and inspire people to action? My co-author and Contently head of content Joe Lazauskas recently broke down the four elements in an awesome mini-series:
- Relatability: The characters and situations in the story need to be one your audience is likely to care about. (Stories about the smudges on your helicopter are not ideal; stories about going through real, human journeys are.)
- Novelty: A great story has surprise, twists, turns, and “aha” moments.
- Fluency: A great story needs to be easy to understand. It’s not about sounding smart or proving your competence. (That can actually backfire.) It’s about getting ideas across.
- Tension: A great story establishes people’s intentions and the obstacles in their way. The bigger the gap between what is and what could be, the higher the stakes, and the more interesting the story.
- And I’ll add one more to Joe’s list: The more personal the story, the more it connects you to your people.
(By the way, if you really want to dig into storytelling strategy, Joe and I developed a seriously in-depth course on storytelling here!)
Great leaders don’t motivate people through statistics. They don’t inspire with generic brags about their vague accomplishments.
And they certainly don’t rally their troops with platitudes and lawyerly non-apologies.
No. Great leaders share the stories of people. Of individuals who face odds and overcome them. They share their own stories of why they care so much.
And we trust them enough to follow them into the hurricane, because of it.
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