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What's This 'Lead Through Story' Business?

Are you going to teach people how to motivate others to change by telling stories?

What's This 'Lead Through Story' Business?

Uh, not quite.

That was one leader’s question after reading my workshop description for “Find Your Way to Lead Through Story,” in which I said we would ground the work in an alternative theory of change that is critical for leaders to understand — namely, that the motivation to change is in people's desire to make meaning (i.e. to tell a story).

I may have over-complicated things with the “theory of change” bit. That’s me getting geeked up about a most provocative insight that came to me via leadership guru Margaret Wheatley (people change to preserve identity), management theorist Douglas McGregor by way of Daniel Pink’s “Drive” (people are intrinsically motivated), author C.S. Lewis (we choose our stories: “I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn't any Narnia”) and rockers U2 (we yearn for the truest stories: “I believe in the Kingdom Come … But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for”).

That’s a lot. So I appreciate the puzzlement. Also, the meaning of “lead through story” is not exactly self-evident, especially because I am thinking of something other than the dominant definition of “lead” and I value “story” too much to reduce it to a tool to get people to do things they don’t want to do.

So I responded to this leader:

The workshop will explain the WHY of story and then get into HOW. 

On the WHY: Every leader who seeks to change a market, a culture, a community, an organization, or a consumer's mind must first understand (a) story is the most powerful way to bring about change and (b) those with whom the leader engages have stories, too, and will only move toward change if they sense a fit between the story they are hearing and their own story. 

In short, people look for resonance. 

That's an important starting point because most leaders are under the impression they can change people, i.e. get them to behave, persuade them to purchase, cajole them into doing things they don't really want to do. 

For example, I can't convince you of the value of this workshop. What I can do is tell you a story of my work with leaders and companies across the United States and how the use of narrative makes a difference. 

My story will be more compelling the more personal it is; so I tell you that it took me a while, and some frustration, to discover that I can't change people and that this realization grew from a sense that leaders get it wrong, overlooking the energy to change that others — team members, customers, stakeholders — bring to every enterprise. That energy, which I call the desire to make meaning, is there whatever the product, service or cause. 

After that, I let the outcome go, though that may be the hardest thing for me to do as a leader — because I really want to convince you. 

I let the outcome go, trusting that if I am true to my story (or my company's or product's story) and paying attention to others' stories, then we'll find some resonance somewhere.