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To be a leader, you need followers, right?

To pull in followers you need to connect with people and draw them towards you and your goal.

The stories you tell in your speeches and in your conversations are your primary tool for doing that. Here’s a three-point plan to develop stories for that one purpose – to connect with others who may support you or help you.

  • Prepare. Who are the targets of your stories? List them in categories – workers, society or church members, parents. Then write down what you think they want to hear from you on this occasion. Are they looking for information, encouragement, motivation, reassurance? Develop a general idea of what needs to be said and the tone you will use as you say it.
  • Select. Once you have your outline select some stories that fit your message. If possible list more than you need, then choose the best. But keep the others in mind – as you are speaking you might find the perfect place for one to illustrate a point you are trying to clarify.
  • Focus.Run through your chosen stories, silently or aloud, See how well each one fits the point it is to illustrate. Work to improve that fit. Add tiny details to help listeners to identify with the story. Change something to make it better fit your purpose. (If it works better for this audience with a young woman as the focal point, rather than an older woman, make that change.) Add a touch of humor, preferably directed at yourself. Put in some emotion, reflect the emotions of the audience right now.

Adding stories connects you in a personal way. They reduce the distance between the leader and those being led. They make the leader more human – no longer is he simply  ‘An Important Person’, he has made himself multi-dimensional and even perhaps slightly vulnerable. He has shared stories that show him as human rather that impersonal. He is one of them rather than a suit from the big city.

Of course, you might be the leader of a small group where everyone knows you and a great deal about you. Then your stories will illustrate examples of strengths and accomplishments that they might not be aware of. The Prepare, Select, Focus system works equally well here.

The point of connecting as a leader is to have others share your vision and your goals, and to have them understand the why and the how. Stories make that connection easier and more comfortable. You are offering easy steps on a well-lit pathway rather than a leap of faith into the darkness.

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Back in the Stone Age, when I was growing up, two attributes were considered important – backbone and gumption.

On your good days, when it was deemed you had backbone and gumption, life ran smoothly and you got a large helping of dessert.

On your bad days (and for me there were rather too many of these) your family and your teachers despaired of you ever amounting to anything and you were considered to be a little lower than the worms.

Backbone and gumption were – are – very close cousins but backbone was the more important of the two. In a pinch, a person could get by without much gumption but backbone was important for all people no matter what their circumstances.

You were measured by your backbone. If people said, “She has plenty of backbone” she was being counted as a worthwhile person. If they said, “She has no backbone” well, she was written off, there was no hope for her.

So what, exactly, was backbone? Strength of character, and lack of weakness perhaps. Principled. Determined. Today we might call it focused but it was more than that. It encompassed ethics; for a kid this meant a working knowledge of right versus wrong. Not easily led. Able to make the hard choices.

This is where I failed the backbone test. I’d do something wrong – skip math class perhaps or not wear part of my school uniform. A bad choice for starters. Then, if I was caught I’d make things worse by saying something like, “It wasn’t my fault. Anne and Kate were doing it and I just joined them.”

I have no idea why I thought this excuse would work because it never did. It only piled a second, and worse, sin on top of the first one. Not only had I skipped class, but I had done it because I lacked backbone. Skipping class was a minor sin compared to lacking backbone. Trouble was doubled.

Occasionally I wondered why moral fiber resided in your spine, but I supposed it was like love came from your heart and intelligence came from your head. Mostly I just took my punishment and resolved not to be so easily led.

Anne and Kate got away with less punishment because they had initiated the behavior – shown gumption – and not just been weakly led into it. True, they had made a bad choice, but they had taken the initiative, led the way, shown resourcefulness, taken action. Their gumption save them from the disapproval – even contempt – that faced me.

We still admire gumption today, although we don’t use the term. We call it leadership and initiative. We value leadership, we encourage it in others and try to improve it in ourselves, but somehow the backbone has gone out of it.

The ability to make hard choices for the long term seems to have been replaced by charisma. Too bad. I liked backbone better.

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You have two things to consider as you start putting together your leadership speech:

– what you want to tell them

– what they need to hear.

Making a good synthesis of these is the secret of your success.

Leaders are usually pretty sure of what they want to say. It takes a bit of research to understand what people need to hear. Take time to go around, talk to your people, ask questions, listen to their answers and especially listen to their stories.

It may be that you have this plan and it’s good workable plan. If only people would do a bit extra, get behind your idea, change some of their old ideas…. You can rah rah till Harry Potter gets old and people still won’t hear you.

But if you have listened to them and their stories you’ll know they’ve heard rumors, they’ve noticed things. Company stock prices are down, a couple of key people have left. People are not listening to the details of your plan, they’re listening for an answer to “Will I still have a job this time next year?”

It sounds simple. If they support your plan of course they’ll have a job next year. The devil is in the details they say. Rah rah speeches tend to be short on detail.

“Our primary focus will be on Product A,” you announce.

People working on Product B think “Does this mean our side of the company will close down? Will my job be safe?”

Critical thinking here means that you spend time researching your people – their history in the company, their ideas their concerns and most of all their stories.

Yes, people will complain, whine, brag, show off. You discount that stuff and listen for the meat of the subject. Then you define and analyze the essence of what has been said. Listen for the underlying feelings, concerns, pride.

In order to lead well and to focus your ideas into a leadership speech you need the understanding that comes from this research and you need the analysis you make from all you have heard.

Then you fit your ideas around your people’s thinking. Because now you know their thinking well enough to use it as a driver for YOUR ideas.

Knowing their stories – even feeding one or two back to them in your speech – makes you one of them. To know these is to be accepted, and no longer just “Whatzisname the board hired a couple of months ago.”

As a leader, taking time to know your people is essential research. Weeding out the relevant from the irrelevant uses your analytical skills. Understanding their stories completes the picture.

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If you are the leader, then you are the most important person in this situation, right?

The others are just followers. They have their skills and their uses – you’d be the first to acknowledge that. But, bottom line, you are the leader, the one who has the ideas, the vision, who holds the whole thing together. so it’s all about you, your vision, your plans. When they succeed , it will be your success.

In the first 73 words of this I’ve used the words ‘you or ‘your’ 8 times. More than one word in ten is about ‘you’. Did it make you feel that you are focal to what this article is about?

That is the feeling you want your people to have when you are speaking to them. People will not think that the talk you are giving is all about them if you use ‘I’, ‘me’  or ‘my’ all the time.

“My vision is…

“What I want to do first is…”

“I’ve always found that…so I want to…”

“My experience has shown me that…”

‘We’ is a good step forward. It’s inclusive but as you outline plans for what ‘we’ are going to do the sceptics in the group will be aware that ‘we’ comprises you in your air-conditioned office and him/her doing the scut work.

The surest way to bring your group onside is to speak to ‘you’. If nothing else it changes your mind-set from yourself as the central, important figure to remembering that other people are involved and they have mind-sets too.

Their mind-set -and your mind-set are not the same. As you address the group your job is to align mind sets so that their thinking about this project pretty much mirrors yours.

What is their mind set? They may be apprehensive – newness tends to create apprehension. Talk to some of the group ahead of time and get an idea of what they are thinking. What are their concerns? What positives or negatives are taking up mind space?

Perhaps they already know that you have an MBA from Harvard and a twenty-year brilliant career with XYZ company, but how  does this affect them personally?

Your vision may be superb but does that mean I have to work overtime, and will I be paid for it?

Get the ‘I, me,myself’ moved from your mind to the mind of each person who is listening to you. This is not a weakness; you are not giving up some of your  power. You are tying into the thoughts and ideas of others. Understanding their ‘I’ thoughts and turning them into ‘you’ phrases in your leadership speeches connects you faster and more effectively.

That’s what you are aiming for.

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Courage

This is a shout out to all the people who read this blog in countries where freedom still a mirage.

Something happened recently that jolted me into the realization that not everyone can read what they want to read or write and publish what they want others to read. I’m not talking about illiteracy (a whole other issue), I’m talking about censorship.

It takes no courage for me, in Canada, to write whatever I want to write. All it takes is some research, some thought and my fingers on the keyboard. And, to be honest, my thoughts are not particularly deep or world shaking.

But what about those who are trying to express to others thoughts and ideas about freedom and other important issues?d  What about people trying to bring about change in a country or region where dissent is frowned on or dangerous? In repressive regimes writing your opinions can be a dangerous occupation. Jail and “disappearance” are definite possibilities.

If I want to write about the deficiencies of my government, at whatever level, I’m free to do that. No courage required, just the energy to get angry enough to do it.

Short of libel and slander, I can lash out as angrily as I want, use every hateful word in the dictionary and let my sarcasm have full rein. No courage required.

Or I can go back to ancient philosophers and point out errors of logic and perception in erudite prose. I could write fiction that lasers into any evils or personal weaknesses I see in government ministers. It could get me a lots of useful personal publicity. It might require talent but it doesn’t require courage.

Within the regimes where the media is controlled personal publicity is probably the last thing a writer wants. Below the radar would be an excellent place to be.

So as we tell our stories and write our speeches in free countries spare a thought for those who cannot do this. Spare a thought for those whose writing and speaking require courage. For those who desperately feel the need to have their ideas heard. For those who are not allowed to read this.

If courage were required, could I write? Could you?

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I needed a new car. I had been to several local dealerships where I was – a woman alone – prime target. I had been welcomed, ignored, served coffee, and instructed (“Don’t lease, buy”).

Some smirked and sent their spottiest youth out to practice on me. Another wanted me to buy without the hassle of the test drive.

Then I went to the dealership where an older man popped a mint in his mouth and tried to show me cars, although they must all have been new on the lot as he knew nothing about them. As I swooned from the aroma of mint – and the alcohol that lay behind –  it I noticed a familiar face.

Their business manager, moved from another dealership, an honest, straightforward young man who had always been courteous and reliable.

Phew! What a relief! Finally I had what I had been looking for – a sense of trust. He wasn’t a salesman but I knew I could trust him to be on my side. He took time to chat about his new job and this dealership. The mint man disappeared and was replaced by someone who knew his product and was ready to listen to me. I was ready to buy. Trust does that.

In any interaction, whether you’re selling cars or promoting your vision for the company the first step is to establish trust. Trust is difficult to establish rationally. You can start with some facts about your accomplishments in your previous leadership roles – and they had better be fully honest because if you’re caught in an exaggeration the tenuous trust link is immediately broken.

But what difference did these accomplishments make. Where’s the story? If you are a volunteer, did your volunteer role result in feeding 500 more people than last year? Perhaps including Pepe and his family who were fleeing domestic abuse. What has happened to little Pepe and his family since then? Maybe he’s on a soccer team now for the first time.

The story is the emotional proof. It’s the “show me don’t tell me”. The PowerPoint slide of Pepe playing soccer penetrates far deeper into the imagination than the PowerPoint graph showing 500 more people than last year.

Telling stories and anecdotes about yourself and your previous, accomplishments shows openness. If you can show a hint of humanity and humility it’s even better. (“I’m great at sales, but as a record keeper I’m not so hot. The year I sold 3 million was also the year I nearly got fired for my sloppy reports. That’s why I trust Frank here to do all our record keeping.”)

Three birds with one stone. You’ve been open about your weakness, you’ve shown you know how to correct mistakes and you’ve given Frank a pat on the back and a sign of your trust in him.

As you establish yourself as a leader trust is your strongest ally. Build it by listing the attributes you’d like to portray (goal oriented, visionary, approachable, …) and by showing these not just with facts – the tip of the iceberg – but with a story to give the in-depth picture.

Make it vivid, with humor and with a one to one connection. A strong sincere story is money in the trust bank.

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Quick answer – you need leadership stories whenever you want others to follow your lead.

So why do leaders so often rely on facts when a story would engage their people so much more effectively?

Because facts are so much easier. A bit of research, an Excel spreadsheet, maybe a Powerpoint presentation. Voila! You’re done! You can even throw in some handouts. In color.

But have you answered the questions that are in people’s minds?

Well, maybe not , but I’ve given them all the facts. How am I supposed to know what every one of them is thinking? I’ve made it quite clear that the company is losing X dollars a year and we need to lay off Y people for a saving of Z dollars over five years. Surely they can understand that.

Yes, but there are two kinds of understanding. There’s comprehension – I understand that it takes me half an hour to drive to my daughter’s house, 45 minutes in rush hour. I also understand that it’s better if I phone first and don’t just drop in – this is the emotional level of perception and discernment.

When you are giving information that affects people’s lives comprehension is not enough. The leader’s discernment and perception should be the basis for communication.  What do people need, – emotionally need?

They need a sense  that you are on their side, that you care. That you are not just some anonymous suit with a hatchet aimed at their job. And yes, this means leadership stories that show you understand. Stories that tell:

  • how you and others have tried to avert the problem. Talk about the efforts, successful and unsuccessful, you have made
  • the effects outside issues have had (‘When this happened in another country, these were the precise effects we felt.’)
  • how previous downturns have affected the company and who did what to turn it around
  • talk about efforts you are making to soften the blow and mitigate the effects on each individual
  • offer, if you can, some hope for the future. Stories about ways other companies have survived similar problems

Brainstorm stories, anecdotes, illustrations that will add color and life to your stories. And offer them to your people when they need you to go beyond the defensiveness of facts and show your empathy with the way they are feeling.

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Why should I bother with leadership stories? Why don’t I just give them the facts? They’re intelligent people – they’ll figure it out.

Suppose your spouse says to you, “I’m travelling to Paris tomorrow. I bought a one-way ticket. It cost me $1000, I’m taking three suitcases and the plane leaves at 10.30 in the morning.”

You’ve got the facts. What more do you need to know?

Let’s stop the scenario at “I’m travelling to Paris tomorrow.” At this point do you have any questions? Like -Why? For how long? With whom? Are you coming back? And maybe, Where did you find the money?

Based on the answers to those questions, a whole new set of questions arise. Maybe the answer to “Why are you going?” is “Because this relationship isn’t working out.” A whole new set of questions come to mind that will address that cold fact.

Truth is, you’re wondering about what happened, what the story is. You don’t really care about the 10:30 and the four suitcases.

Before I get carried away writing about this hypothetical situation let’s get back to the point. The spouse provided many valid and relevant facts but none of them addressed the questions in the mind of the person on the receiving end. And that’s too often what leaders try to do. They scatter facts around like bird seed without asking if birds in this region actually eat seeds.

Remember the old salesman’s adage “Talk about benefits, not features”? Facts are like the features. Unless they are meaningful to the person listening they carry no weight. Throwing more facts in doesn’t help people understand more (“My flight takes ten hours and lands at DeGaulle airport”).

I’m not saying ‘Don’t use facts’, I’m saying first take time to discover and select facts that are truly meaningful, then illustrate them with a story to make the understanding complete. The story helps to create understanding and paves the way for acceptance.

People who understand and accept are more willing and active followers. Most will appreciate the time taken to give them the real background story; they will start to listen to you at a deeper level. If someone asks them later what you spoke about they are more likely to pass along the essence with some accuracy; you reduce the garble from a half-understood message.

So your spouse says to you, “Honey. I know this is sudden but that art course  in France I wanted to attend, but it was full? They had a cancellation and I have to go right away. I got the only flight I could. I’ll be back in a couple of weeks. We can Skype.”

Now, don’t you feel better?

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Leaders change things. They take people from where they were to somewhere different and (we hope) better. Leaders aren’t there to make others feel good – although that might be a part of their role. They are there to lead people to change in some way and the leader has figured out the direction and the strategy

BUT, big but, they have to communicate that in order to motivate others to take action. The first part of the communication is to get people to understand and agree with the change. The second part is to get them to take action. Without that action nothing will happen.

AND this communication needs stories. Facts might lay the groundwork. Stories provide the inspiration and the motivation. To give an example: Tom’s widget company is growing and he needs to move his factory to a much bigger site across town. It means a longer commute for almost all his workers. They will not be happy about this.

Tom can stand up with a Powerpoint presentation and detail square footages, production figures, export totals. The facts. Chances are most of the workers knew the basics anyway and the details aren’t important to them. They know the machinery has been increasingly crowded together and the shipping department has been going crazy. Most of them realize this means they should move to a larger space. But the other side of town? Get up half an hour earlier? Use all that gas? Get home later?

The export figures don’t answer those questions. A good communicator understands and answers the questions in people’s minds so Tom starts off,

“Maybe you don’t remember when I started this company in my garage using $30,000 of my mother’s money for the equipment I needed. The first time I sold widgets to the next town I was so thrilled. Now we are selling to fifteen countries worldwide. When I started I had one kid helping me after school. (Stand up Jim. He started at five bucks an hour and now he’s our production manager.) Thanks to Jim and to all of you our sales have doubled since 2008. Now, together, we’re going to take an exciting next step.

“I know that for many of you it will mean a longer commute and we are looking at ways to make that less burdensome for you – par t of our success means we might have some leeway to make some adjustments. I’d welcome some of your ideas about that.”

Can you see how Tom has woven just a few relevant statistics into the story he tells to his employees. Does it matter to his employees that his mother’s loan was  $30,000? Not in terms of useful knowledge, but it matters in terms of giving a human perspective to the story of the company. Is it useful to know that Jim started as a kid at five bucks an hour? Not really, but that part of the story says a lot about company/employee loyalty.

Tom’s story addressed the unspoken thought  of his employees. ‘This is going to be a nuisance. Why don’t I just find a job at another company, one closer to home?’

That’s what a leadership story does.

This is the first in a series about Leadership Stories. Come back for more.)

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