When I’m discussing how to introduce leadership storytelling, I’m often asked: “Should I call it storytelling?” The reasons are twofold.
- It might be a business executive worrying that “storytelling” conveys an activity that isn’t serious or appropriate for a large organization to be wasting time and money on.
- Or it might be someone in the storytelling world wondering whether storytelling might have more success in the business world if it had a more business-like name, something that would link it more directly to the drivers of business.
It’s useful to begin thinking about the question from a historical perspective.
A historical shift
Shortly after I left the World Bank in December 2000 and began wandering around the world showing leaders in organizations, large and small, how to use the power of storytelling to inspire people to embrace change, I did indeed find some organizations that were embarrassed by the name. Early on, I would be engaged to conduct a workshop almost in the dark of night with a name like “Strategic Change Management” as if to ensure that the Chief Financial Officer would never find out that time and money was being wasted on something as irrelevant to business as storytelling.
Other organizations adopted a kind of middle ground and would use a euphemistic name like “business narrative”, which was not as misleading as “strategic change management” yet not as obviously unbusiness-like as “storytelling”. “Business narrative” implies that storytelling is a business activity.
Around 2005, as the leadership storytelling movement grew in scope around the world, and more and more articles and books about the use of storytelling in business, I noticed a change. When I would propose a workshop about “business narrative”, I would get a question: “Isn’t this about storytelling? Why don’t we call it what it is?”
Since then, storytelling has continued to gain recognition as a core competence of leadership. It is now standard practice to include a section on storytelling in books on leadership and change management, such as A Whole New Mind (2006) by Dan Pink, The Leadership Challenge (2008) by Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner, Made to Stick (2008) by Chip and Dan Heath, and Getting Change Right (2010) by Seth Kahan.
Linking storytelling to the drivers of business
Nevertheless, around 2008, I noticed that although storytelling initiatives would flourish for a period in large organizations, there was an issue of sustainability. Workshops would be held. Enthusiasm would grow. The CEO would endorse it. Plans would start to be developed to make storytelling a core leadership competence. But then something would happen. There would be a change in management. Or a merger. Or a cost-cutting drive. And suddenly the storytelling initiative would be sidelined, de-funded or de-emphasized or eliminated.
In effect, the apparent victories over the Chief Financial Officer that I was seeing in the storytelling workshops and initiatives tended to be temporary. I was winning battles. But I wasn’t winning the war. The Chief Financial Officer and his minions would be lurking in the shadows, waiting for the right moment when they could stomp on this storytelling nonsense, “trim the fat” that storytelling represented, get back to maximizing efficiency, and once again have the organization focused single-mindedly on maximizing the bottom line.
This has led some to wonder whether storytelling might do better if it had a name that was not obviously at odds with the business drivers of a traditional organization. Would it be possible to come up with a name for storytelling that made it more acceptable to the Chief Financial Officer mindset?
The problem here is that the issue is one of substance, not the name. The fact is that the human values of storytelling—openness, authenticity, deep listening, adult-to-adult conversation, treating people as people—are at odds with the drivers of the traditional business: maximizing efficiency, command and control, treating people as “human resources” and manipulating customers so as to enhance the bottom line. Attempting to link storytelling to the drivers of the traditional business inevitably results in a disconnect. The two activities are based on different values.
Moreover storytelling is a double-edged sword. Storytelling is a powerful communication tool that can be used to inspire people to embrace strange new ideas. But in the process, storytelling reveals very clearly the nature of those ideas. So if the ideas are unattractive or even unethical, storytelling will reveal that more powerfully than the meaning that the storyteller is hoping to convey. In effect, as often happens in leadership storytelling, the story that the listeners hear will end up being very different from the story that the leaders imagine themselves to be telling.
So although some executives and writers argue that the power of storytelling can be combined with the values of the traditional organization, this overlooks the fact that the power of storytelling rests on people-centered values. By contrast, the values of the traditional organization are related to things: making money, maximizing efficiency, exploiting people as “human resources” and enhancing the bottom line. Joining storytelling to the drivers of the traditional organization is like mixing oil and water. They don’t go together.
Storytelling as a revolutionary force for change
From this perspective, it becomes clearer why the Chief Financial Officer and his minions should be so intent on removing storytelling from the organization: storytelling is a revolutionary force that can begin to stimulate questions as to whether making money and maximizing efficiency should really be the be-all and end-all of organizations and society. Storytelling can begin to reveal the de-humanizing results of running organizations in this way and so spur a quest to consider more human-based alternatives.
Of course, subordinating storytelling to the values of traditional management might be worth considering if traditional management was doing well. But it’s not. It’s a disaster. The rate of return on the assets of US firms is a quarter of what it was in 1965. The life expectancy of a firm in the Fortune 500 is down to 15 years and heading towards five years; only one in five workers is fully engaged in his or her work; traditional management has also shown itself incapable of handling disruptive innovation, of generating new jobs or of coping with the demands of social media. Overall, traditional management represents a set of economic, social and political problems of the first order.
As a result, trying to change the name of storytelling so as to align more closely with the drivers of the traditional management is heading in the wrong direction. Instead, one should be using storytelling to change the drivers of the traditional organization and reinventing management, so that the organization generates high productivity, continuous innovation, disciplined execution, greater job satisfaction and client delight.