Most of us can recognize a struggling leadership story within the first twenty or thirty seconds of its telling. It feels like’s it’s being composed on the spot, as it wanders aimlessly forward, takes a detour (or six), and never really stays on course. When listening to such a story unfold, you are quickly met with the sinking realization that you better buckle down, because this is going to take a while.
In contrast, a good leadership story has a sense of direction. It knows where it’s heading and then heads there. These leadership stories are rich and descriptive, but also efficient, not in the sense of dry or straight forward, but as in being judicious and well-organized. Every element of the story is there for a reason, and those elements are strung together with a strong plot that has structure and flow, transitioning seamlessly from one element to another and driving towards a meaningful point (the “morale of the story” as it were).
Strong plot structures don’t happen by chance for great storytellers; they are developed and well thought-through. Outlined below is the diagram we use in our storytelling training to help leaders map out the plot of their leadership story by identifying the various landing points within it. To further explain and demonstrate these landing points, we have included an example leadership story a leader might tell his team: in this case to help them understand how they are going to tackle an aggressive new goal handed down from senior management.
Setting Workplace Context for Your Story — Rather than diving straight into a leadership story, it’s important to first frame and establish the premise for it by connecting the story you’re about to tell to the workplace situation or circumstance in which you’re about to tell it.
Thanks everyone for coming to this meeting. As you know, the head office has set some aggressive targets for next year, asking us to increase our net profitability by 12%: more than double the 5% increase we did this year. That’s a big, big goal for us to reach. I’m sure it feels somewhat insurmountable, almost impossible to achieve. But I know we can achieve it, and we’re going to use this meeting to set out a plan to do so. When I think about tackling tough challenges, I always remember a time in my life when I had to do the same. So before we start planning, I want to take a couple of minutes to tell you a quick story.
Starting Point — What is the platform for the main character(s) in your leadership story: the time, place or old situation in which your story begins?
About nine years ago in early January — after two solid weeks of Holiday-induced binging on butter, sugar and the “occasional” drink — I was sitting in the living room grabbing the spare tire around my middle and whining about how fat I’d gotten. My wife, rather than saying what any good spouse is supposed to say in those situations — “Honey, you’re not fat” — asked, “Well what do you plan to do about it?”
The Catalyst for Something New or Different — What was the trigger that sent the main character off on a new path, either because their situation changed, was changed for them, or they had a desire for something new.
My blank stare told her I (of course) had no plan at all. So she proposed one. “I think you need big bold goal to work towards. How about you run a marathon with me in September?”
Now I love a challenge as much as the next person, but for someone who had run no more than three miles at a time, the thought of running twenty-six seemed impossible. “That is not going to happen! There is no way I’m going to be able to run that far without dying, killing someone, or some combination of the two.” Ever calm, she replied, “I know you can do it. But you have to want to do it.” So reluctantly I agreed to try.
Challenges and Obstacles — Most great stories have tension in them at some point. What sort of problems, pitfalls or predicaments did the main character experience after setting off on this new path?
On the outside, I put on a brave face, but on the inside I was skeptical and, frankly, a bit terrified. Twenty-six miles! How was that ever going to happen?
One of the first things I did was sign up for a marathon training group. I tell you, I was a bit intimidated that first Saturday morning when I showed up, expecting to have to run with a group of gazelles. But as I walked up to the gathering point, I was pleased to see that everyone seemed to be in the same boat as I was in: a little overweight and, judging by the looks on their faces, a little panicked by the thought of running a marathon.
In that early morning cold, we waited for our running group leader. And when she showed up, I held my breath, expecting her to take us immediately out on a six or eight mile run that would most certainly destroy me. But instead, she talked to us for a while about how the next several months were going to unfold – how we were going to start slow and, with each run, focus on a more immediate and attainable goal and not worry just yet about twenty-six miles. And then she set today’s goal of running one mile. That was it. Just one.
Turning Point — When was the tension in the story resolved because the challenges were overcome, problems solved, or obstacles broken down? For more personal leadership stories, often the turning point takes the form of an epiphany, change of heart or perspective on the part of the main character.
I tell you, that first mile run was not pretty. But I did it. The whole group did it. And as I looked around at everyone, I saw this wonderful combination of exhaustion and pride on their faces, tinged with the slightest glimmer of hope and conviction.
And as the weeks and months rolled on, we kept setting new goals and hitting them: three miles, seven, ten. If you had presented each new goal to me on that first morning, I would’ve laughed in your face. But because each goal was positioned relative to the one that preceded it – one we had already reached – they seemed more achievable. And before you knew it, we were up to twelve miles, sixteen, twenty.
New Situation and Learning from It — What was life like after the turning point, and what understanding, wisdom or realization did the main character glean because of this experience? This ultimately becomes the main point of your story: the core idea or lesson your story brought to life.
And then it’s the day of the marathon, and I’m at the starting line with my wife and other members of my running group, and off we go. Twenty-six miles. It wasn’t the prettiest marathon anyone’s ever run, and I’m sure there were times where spectators on the sidelines were thinking to themselves, “Someone needs to help that man.” But I finished. I did it.
I think the biggest thing I learned from that experience was that when life throws a goal at you that seems insurmountable, rather than worrying about how you’re going to leap from here all the way to there, focus more on the smaller jumps you can take to bridge the gap. For me and all my fellow marathoners, we literally took it one step at a time. We never lost sight of the ultimate goal we were trying to achieve, but each week we focused on a more immediate, more attainable goal that was going to ensure we got there.
Reconnecting the Story back to Work — How can you connect the key realization from the leadership story back to the workplace situation you’re in? In other words, what is the implication of your leadership story’s main point to your (and/or your audience’s) workplace circumstances?
And that’s exactly how we’re going to tackle this goal of increasing our net profit by 12% this year. We’re going to break it down, and we’re going to figure out the smaller, little steps we can take to enable us to make this big leap. And most importantly, we’re going to do it together.
Having a well-organized plot is important when you are a telling a story in any situation, but it is especially important when sharing a leadership story at work. When time is everyone’s most precious commodity, you need to make certain your story isn’t a waste of it. So take the time to map out the plot of your leadership story before you tell it. Your audience will be more enlightened, inspired, and certainly happier because of it.