I will remember the last few weeks as one of the longest, hardest and most turbulent of my career. Even though I had experienced the 2008 financial crisis when I was in my mid-20s, what as a world we are undergoing now is beyond comparison. But this situation also offers an unparalleled opportunity to showcase leadership capabilities, to put all their professional experience and training gained over the years to test. Every day, we have a choice – either hide and not be heard or be at the forefront and battle it out to live another day. Leaders belong to the second category.
Leadership Communication to Focus on the WHY
Viktor Frankl’s, “Man’s search for meaning” is a brilliant classic that talks about his struggle for survival in Auschwitz and other Nazi concentration camps during World War II. Throughout the book, he emphasizes on the most crucial attribute that offered him hope. It was about looking forward to the greater meaning and purpose of his life.
There is a reason why some organizations have survived 100 years and are leaders in their field. And the reason is simple. They were able to stay true to their purpose and communicate it over the years to their employees, customers and partners.
Leaders who can march their troops towards the greater meaning the organization stands for will emerge less scathed after this pandemic. One great way is to pick stories either from the organization’s past or the one that the leader has undergone herself. The founding story or the challenge plot could be best suited for this situation.
Choosing the Right Narrative
Remember the David and Goliath story, it is a challenge plot where the protagonist overcomes a formidable challenge and succeeds. This plot addresses the triumph of sheer willpower by overcoming adversity. The current context also provides an opportunity to redefine the purpose for a greater deed.
When the Iraq war started, Floyd Lee was a retired marine corps and army cook after a twenty-five-year career. He came out of retirement to serve the army one more time. He was in charge of the Pegasus Chow hall outside the Baghdad airport. The usual army food is just about what one would expect, bland, overcooked with less focus on quality and taste but massive on quantity.
But Lee wanted to make a difference to the soldiers’ world when they enter into the Pegasus hall. He made his mission and that of Pegasus team’s mission as, “I am not just in charge of food service; I am in charge of morale”. This vision manifested in hundreds of small actions taken by the staff of Pegasus hall on a daily basis.
Inspite of the same raw material that every army mess received, at Pegasus, the food was prepared with so much care. The prime rib was perfectly prepared; the fruit platter had a beautiful assortment of watermelon, kiwi and grapes, the desert serving included a strawberry cake. “The time you are in here, you forget you’re in Iraq”, said a soldier after a Sunday dinner.
By redefining the mission of the Pegasus mess hall, Floyd Lee inspired his team to create an oasis in the desert. This is a more opportune time to redefine the narrative within the organisation to look at the bigger picture, to share with the team how their work is making impact-it could mean sharing your client feedback or how competition is failing but your organisation is continuing to support and that is all making a huge difference.
As a leader or manager, pick up the right story, the one that includes a challenge plot, overcoming the monster/adversity type, wrap that in the current context and be sure to deliver it with emotion. Challenge plots are inspiring; they appeal to our perseverance and courage. They make us want to work harder, take on new challenges and overcome obstacles. Challenge plots inspire us to act.
Three Steps to Power Your Communication with Storytelling
Leaders are known to use narratives to inspire, influence and engage. By following these three steps, one can improve their storytelling powered communication
- Start collecting stories – Personal anecdotes, reading books, story listening
- Stories need to be simple & credible
- Practice and seek feedback
To be good at stories, one needs to start collecting them. Stories can be from your personal experience; books are another source where one can find a wealth of stories; the other way is by listening to business leaders talks and interviews or from peer groups. From all these sources, one can find a good collection of stories that would apply to different contexts. The next step is to organize by categorizing them for different situations and topics. It helps in picking the right story for a specific context and topic.
Keeping it Simple and Credible
In a business context, telling a fictional story may not work as it lacks credibility and for lack of context. And stories are to be kept simple as you don’t want ambiguity or people taking different connotations. For example, Southwest airlines core principle is “We are the low fare airline”. This simple message guides their staffs in making everyday decisions. By latching on to authorities in the subject or by using compelling details/statistics (without losing the simplicity aspect), one can establish credibility.
Practice and Feedback
Before communicating to a broader audience, it is always good to share the story with a test audience to observe their reactions and asking them what they remembered, what questions they have for you. If they ask the right questions and share the takeaways that you had intended, that’s a good sign that the message is working.
Leadership in hard times means focusing on the most critical problems we face; it is also about making sense of the big picture. By aligning purpose, performance and organizational principles, business leaders can lead their organizations through this crisis with less damage. This could be achieved by reminding us about the shared purpose, which is why inspiring leaders have always used to storytelling to inspire, influence and engage.