It can’t have escaped your notice that earlier this week it was World Storytelling Day. As a leader, the only story you need to be telling is the one about you – who you are, what you stand for and why your school is the best party in town.
Telling powerful stories about the culture you have created as a headteacher is what makes you stand out as a truly great leader. Storytelling helps the best leaders nail their colours to the mast for all to see by bringing their values to life through metaphor and motto. Leaders that harness this power create a ‘legend’, a lasting legacy that lives on long after they’ve gone.
As with all good stories, it’s the way you tell them that matters. Let’s face it, as teachers, we all know how powerful a good story can be to a captivated audience. Telling stories to children is what we do really well.
As leaders, we need to learn how to translate this skill to adults. The principles aren’t really that much different. (Other than the small fact that those that are listening can just get up and leave.)
The best heads know that a compelling story well-told creates cultural glue. It’s about forming emotive connections that bind people together with a common language and sense of purpose. It’s what motivates people and gets them out of bed in the morning.
So important is the art of storytelling, that in James Kerr’s book ‘Legacy’, he argues that leaders even need to go so far as to invent their own language. In so doing, this then allows them to “sing the world into existence” because they’ve created their own vocabulary.
Seth Godin suggests a different art-form (in his book, ‘Tribes: We need you to lead us’). Rather than sing or tell stories, we must instead get our brushes out and ‘paint a picture of the future’ on our blank canvas.
To ensure your narrative comes to life, your values and beliefs become the star of the story – centre-stage characters that drive the plot. You need to embellish and develop people’s understanding of what drives these key characters; how they got there, where they came from and where they are going.
As with all good books, we need to fall in love with the people that are in them. If we don’t care much for the main characters and can’t associate ourselves with them, we don’t care much for the story. The same goes with your core ideology – your vision, values and reason for being.
As James Kerr says:
“Leaders are storytellers. All great organisations are born from a compelling story. This central organising thought helps people understand what they stand for and why.”
I believe that the best leaders all share a number of traits that make them become master storytellers. You need to try and exhibit them often, and as with anything worth doing well, you need to practise them often too. These character traits include: energising, discovering, imagining, celebrating, failing, questioning and dismantling. (You can read more about them in my book).
What is crucial as a leader is that you model these frequently, whilst at the same time giving out permissions to others to do the same.
For example, staff need to know that they have permission (or not) to fail often, or question often. They need to know the extent to which they can dismantle what’s not working in their classroom or the degree to which they can discover (and try out) new things without coming to you first.
According to Sir Ken Robinson, by giving these permissions out openly to all and as soon as you can, as a leader you are unwittingly defining the culture of the school without anyone necessarily knowing it.
In a recent article in The New York Times, research showed that when transforming challenging schools in Chicago, those traits mentioned above are commonplace. Although not identical to the ones I suggest, they certainly aren’t dissimilar:
“When you learn about successful principals, you keep coming back to the character traits that they embody and spread: energy, trustworthiness, honesty, optimism, determination.”
What’s really interesting is that the key to embedding systemic change is not to do with what you do financially, structurally or administratively. It’s not about having the best ideas or always being right or being the most clever. Instead, it’s about how you engage, motivate and galvanise the people around you.
It’s about how well you tell your story.
“We went through a period when we believed you could change institutions without first changing the character of the people in them. But we were wrong. Social transformation follows personal transformation.”
Let’s be crystal clear about this. The stories that you tell about the culture that you’ve created start and end with you. It’s your name above the door: You set the weather. The team that you create are only as good as the culture that allows them to thrive (or not).
The New York Times sum it up perfectly:
“Principals set the culture by their very behaviour – the message is the person.”
Those seven traits mentioned above aren’t the complete picture. There is an eighth and it’s the one that I think is most important when creating a culture built to last: Articulating.
Being able to articulate your vision effectively can be a daunting and challenging prospect, whether it be in the form of a story, painting or song. It’s not good enough simply to tell or instruct people. Sending out an email, death by PowerPoint or a glossy laminated infographic won’t engage anyone.
I always remember a senior leader whom I first worked with as a new head. She couldn’t see why things weren’t being done. “I’ve sent them all a group email dozens of time,” she’d say. “I’ve told them in briefing over and over again. I don’t get what bit of it they don’t understand!” She really was getting very exasperated.
The answer of course was in the messaging, the storytelling. There was no connection, no buy-in and therefore a complete lack of emotional attachment from the staff. Shouting louder and stamping your feet simply won’t wash.
The wisest leaders understand then that it’s not just what you say but how you say it. As well as being visceral in their storytelling, they are also marketing and communication experts. They do this often, not by accident, but methodically and persistently.
They are highly proactive at continually seeking openings to tell their story at every opportunity, often by stealth, to anyone prepared (and sometimes not) to listen.
The best leaders sit people down and empower them and build consensus by bringing their vision to life in a way that is compelling and entirely believable. They are dogged and unwavering in equal measure.
Their story becomes their mantra.
And always remember this: If you don’t tell the story, who will? Seize the moment.
For no other reason then than it being international storytelling week, to close, here is one of my favourite stories about the importance of leadership, one that you might like to tell any budding future leader. Just promise me you won’t send them a memo.
It’s called ‘The Feast’ and it goes like this:
After yet another disastrous project that resulted in higher taxes and more hardship imposed on the people, a wise man let it be known at court that he was a master chef. One day he announced a feast at which he would prepare the most delicious new food. The King and all of his advisers were invited and couldn’t wait to attend.
When the various dignitaries arrived, full of anticipation, the food was presented in great style. But it proved to be disgusting.
“What is this abominable, poisonous mess you are asking us to eat?” cried the outraged guests. “You’re making us all sick!”
“This is my latest recipe,” explained the chef. “I made it up as I went along, putting in at random anything that came to hand without any rhyme or reason. It seemed like a good idea.”
“That’s absurd!” the King and all his advisors shouted at once. “That’s no way to prepare a meal.”
“I agree,” said the wise one before making a hasty exit. “But I thought it would be interesting, nonetheless, to try out a recipe based on your way of doing things.”