When we hear the phrase “leader as storyteller,” we tend to see the image of the lone leader, at a podium, sharing his or her perceptions about the world, the organization, or the company’s strategy. The beliefs we hold about leadership all too often translate into images of Jack Welch or Tim Cook—white males staring at us from the cover of Fortune Magazine.
But when leaders effectively tell a story—a story that includes us—it comes alive in us, guiding us into the future and building a shared reality. These moments when leaders speak to their organizations are among the most important acts any leader performs. In this context, storytelling isn’t a polished performance or an individual’s singular product of thought, it’s a social creative act.
I’ve been inspired for years by the work of Shawn Callahan and the crew at Anecdote (www.anecdote.com) in Melbourne, Australia. They’ve developed a process they call Anecdote Circles in which they collect stories and help people make sense of them. They really understand the way, or process, of storytelling and its ability to drive positive organizational change.
Recently I heard from one of our community members who said, “Story-telling is a great way to inspire the change process. The process involves sense-making. The leader constantly listens to the voices of the stakeholders so they help bridge in all the voices needed to be part of the story.” This comment prompted me to drill down into this idea of sensemaking.
I like this definition of sensemaking: a motivated, continuous effort to understand connections among people, places and events in order to anticipate their trajectories and act effectively. In other words, it’s the process by which we give meaning to our experiences. This is what makes storytelling social and it is what builds a shared view of what is real. If the sensemaking maintains a discipline of using stories, anecdotes, and overarching narratives, the group can understand highly complex situations provided the stories are robust or thick enough.
You’ve no doubt heard the phrase “God is in the details,” meaning that paying attention to small details can yield outsized rewards. This, in a nutshell, is what thickening a story is all about. When “the plot thickens,” we have a richer story. And thickening a story is one of the most powerful ways to increase our understanding—sensemaking—of a story. The process is one of deep reflection, dialogue, and attention to the details we tend to gloss over, especially in positive stories.
How do we do that? There are many ways to thicken a story. Here are a few methods I’ve used with clients:
- Create a timeline of the story;
- Formulate a metaphor that captures the essence of the story;
- Find an image that is rich in detail and captures the key thrust of the story;
- Use a series of questions to explore all aspects of the story;
- Engage in a thorough exploration of the vocabulary of the story and its links to your values;
- Tap into the symbols of the story and find multiple pictures to graphically tell the story; and
- Draw pictures of the story.
Though there are a myriad of other ways to get thickening details, I’ve found that one or more of these listed here can help clients thicken their stories, enhancing their interpretation and sensemaking.
Once the thickening of the story has been discussed, the group is better equipped to step back and observe the story in a way that allows it to reflect on how this story aids, impedes, and guides actions today and into the future.
Narrative coach David Drake said, “We see as far as our stories take us.” Stories rich with detail—thickened stories—will take us much farther.