Narrative. That powerfully provoking invitation to mentally connect, igniting a legendary inner quest-line towards meaning. The Story of my Life!
One of my fondest memories as a kid, is listening to my grandmother Maria narrate stories to me during those warm and cozy summer nights. But she didn’t just give them up for nothing. She would always strike a deal first: I would get to rub her feet, while she would narrate. We would sit at opposing chairs in the terrace, her feet on my knees, with no lights other than what the starry night could provide, and I would gently massage her reddish and slightly swollen toes as she talked. I didn’t even care to “work” for those stories: her narration style was so distinctive, that my hands moved automatically as my mind wondered to picture the stuff she was describing.
Some of her stories (like The Three Little Pigs, The Little Red Riding Hood, and The Wolf and The Seven Young Goats) are popular fairytales (as I got to find out when I grew older), but most of her narrations were unique. I’ve never heard or found them again anywhere in the world (and, trust me when I say, I went looking). And, boy, did she have an inventory: princesses, fighters, dragons, castles, locked rooms, riddles, magical women who could shape-shift, oriental fighters and their scimitars, witty commoners hiding from danger in intricate places, moving stairs, talking animals and spell-locks: no wonder I grew to become an avid D&D player! We used no books or other means: her colorful voice, the look on her face, and the mystifying atmosphere of the night were all I needed to immerse into her alluring narrative.
Some times, while listening to a story, I would close my eyes and start picturing the setup: how the wolf would look like, what the princess would be wearing, how tall the tower would be. But, most of the time, I would end up staring into my grandma’s glaring eyes, looking deeply as her face would move along with her voice, hands and eyes in a theatrical depiction of the given narrative. Such a range of tones: from that scary low pitch roar in the wolf’s voice, to the high pitch giggle of the little pigs, she was practically performing. And I was wholeheartedly present, laughing, enjoying every moment, craving for one more story. And then another one. And another…
Summer nights would come to pass, following that same old ritual for years and years. Every summer we would spend together, and every night we would have stories. Some stories we had grown out of (like the popular fairytales) but we would keep coming back to her unique ones. I was practically a teenager when I heard my granny narrate for the last time. I didn’t know it back then, but the summer of ’93 would signal the end of our storytelling sessions. I’m glad I didn’t know beforehand, to be honest. Handling the element of surprise was a struggle, and at the same time a key learning point for all the characters in granny’s stories. According to her, not knowing what comes next is a good thing: it means there is room for growth And I grew…
My grandma was more than a mellow storyteller, through. I literally spent the first year of my life with her. My mom held a career in the Shipping industry at the time, and was required to get back to work as soon as I turned 40 days old. No generous maternity policies back in the 80s, so granny Maria took me in. She was my first caretaker and, although I have no recollection of my time with her as a baby, we always had a bond, stronger than any words could articulate. At some point, my mom decided to leave work and stay at home to raise me, so I got to see granny in the weekends and during summer. But there would always -always- be a story; at least a short one, right before our siesta!
Although my mom wasn’t much of a narrator herself, she compensated by all other available means that hosted narrative, and never disappointed. As a kid, I had literally unlimited access to fairytales, comic books and stories in all possible mediums: books, cassette tapes, VHS, and later CDs and DVDs. My dad’s long-standing career in the music and movies industry also played a big part in keeping our inventory rich and new media coming!
Fiction was my favorite pastime, and has converted me into a passionate and curious bookworm who -to date- buys more books than she can read. But it all started with granny Maria. Without her cultivating my passion of how magnificently interesting stories can get, I probably wouldn’t have grown that deep a bond with narrative or go looking for alternative uses for it. But she was there, and I was me so, as an adult entering into the World of Work, I quickly got fascinated about the deep connection between Storytelling and Leadership, and how the latter just won’t do without the former!
As I have come to understand having done my own research on the matter, Storytelling is the framing of metaphors, as means to trigger an extended perception of a concept. That’s why it resonates with Leadership more than Management.
Leadership is, in effect, a task of persuasion, dealing more with the ends than the means. Storytelling is quite relevant for that matter, given the fact that it can be used in cases where there’s no agreement on underlying assumptions and goals, or where there is a broad agreement but the assumptions and goals are heading for failure. Storytelling comprises a whole array of tools that could support all practices towards exemplary leadership, such as sparking people into action, communicating who one is (or who one’s company is) transmitting values, sharing knowledge and leading into the future. (Denning, 2005)
The talent for Storytelling found in Parents and Caretakers who help raise a child, often goes unassociated with the World of Work, even though it is a key component that makes them great candidates for a Leadership position!
Personally, I don’t feel the need to be convinced about how powerful and inspiring Storytelling can get. Being on the receiving end of my granny’s stories, I’m sold. I have felt it to my bone how it can get you working; how it can invite or prevent action; how it can shape perceptions that form your reality; how deeply inspiring it can become. But, alas, don’t take my word for it! After all, you didn’t get to hear out my granny narrate, so you are by all means excused if you don’t feel it in you right now. Perhaps the words of field experts on how Stories shape behaviors will help, though:
- Delgado has written about how Stories have the power to build consensus though shared understanding and deeper ethics, or quicken conscience into showing that there are other possibilities than the one the executives (or the business) operate(s) in.
- Boje has showed how seeking for patterns among Stories narrated by different people within the same Organization can help make sense of its processes and relationships.
- Ready is convinced that tomorrow’s great Leaders are built through Storytelling.
So I’m definitely not alone in acknowledging the connection between Stories and Leaders. I feel, however, like a sad minority when I bring up the subject of where the Storytelling ability is often cultivated. Because it’s definitely not in the Board Room!
It’s right before sleep-time, Momma, where you get to tell your kid (yet another) bedtime story that your Storytelling skills get polished. Perhaps you haven’t gotten as far as creating your own stories (or maybe you have) but you already have broad experience in which components of your narrative engage and which of them disengage your picky sleepless audience. You know what makes a story tick, and what makes a behavior stick. That’s why often choose bedtime stories based on their moral, aligned with your kid’s developmental stage. All those who take up the hard task of telling stories to kids, be them Moms, Dads, Grandmas or Grandads, get to practice Storytelling more often than the world’s most renowned Leaders ever will.
So, my dear Recruiter or Hiring Manager, if your opening relies on someone calling other people to action, conveying meaning or communicating value, maybe that Mom, Dad, or Grandparent in your candidate list who is some kid’s Storyteller deserves a good second look. And, yes: there is a place in the workforce for people of all shapes and sizes: Seniors too! After all, chances are that, without them, you wouldn’t even know why building a hut out of straw in the middle of a forest is probably not a good idea after all when there’s a wolf roaming around, as I’m sure my Primitive Technology friend John Plant would agree!
Growing into a Leader one Story at a time? You got this!