Photo of a book with once upon a time

Once upon two times: leadership through storytelling

Angus Cameron 9th February 2021

What is your organisation’s story?  Who wrote it?  Who is telling it?  If you’re in a leading position in your organisation and are puzzled by these questions, you may have a problem.  That’s because if you don’t know your story, you’ve almost certainly lost control of it.

Let me tell you a story.

A year or so ago, back in the ‘before times’ when we could attend conferences, myself and my colleague Dr Arlene Egan were confronted with an interesting conundrum.  We’d presented a paper on organisational resilience, the themes of which had struck a chord with one particular CEO.  His firm, he told us, at least as far as the numbers were concerned, was very successful.  It was well-established, regularly turned in healthy profits and won international awards.  His problem was that despite the money and the plaudits, he was struggling to lead a deeply divided workforce.

The split had developed as the company had grown beyond its original premises.  A new factory had been built to meet increased demand, new product lines had been developed, and a new staff was recruited to run it all.  There was little or no transfer of the existing workforce to the new site.  That would have been difficult enough by itself had it not been for an extra twist of political geography.  The organisation is based in an Eastern European country that had left the clutches of the Warsaw Pact not long before the new factory opened.  The firm’s different sites developed along two divergent trajectories – one looking back nostalgically at a half-remembered socialist utopia, the other forward to a vague but glittering capitalist future.

So we asked the CEO what his organisational story was.  Perhaps not surprisingly, he did not have a very coherent answer to this – it had never occurred to him that he needed one.

As we discussed the apparently intractable divide in the firm, it became apparent that the senior team were leading the functions of the organisation – the mechanics of cashflow, R&D, production figures, deadlines and contracts – but not the organisation itself.  They had brands and marketing messages, even mission statements, but they had failed to take hold of one of the most important elements in an organisation’s identity – its story.  Not only had they allowed two company stories to emerge, they had not realised how quickly, or how deeply, each would reinforce the other.  What emerged was one firm, but two organisational cultures and two workforces tightly entwined in the creeping vines of their own, self-generated stories.  Our troubled CEO went off very thoughtful: determined to find a way to unify his company story.  The continued success of his company suggests that he did.

Photo of two people in a protest

This might seem an extreme example.  We had certainly never encountered an organisation quite as split as this one.  But aspects of this tale apply to all organisations.  There is not and cannot be a single organisational story that is true for all time.  The context in which we operate changes, and so the stories we tell to situate ourselves in that changing environment must also adapt.  While few of us will ever encounter the clash of histories experienced by our friend from the conference, just think of the emergent contexts in which you are operating.  Climate change, Black Lives Matter, #metoo, Brexit, the rise of Generation Z and, of course, whatever post-Covid world awaits us, all should be prompting some rapid revisions of organisational stories.  This is much more than canny marketing: your organisation’s story affects every part of your operation, every member of staff, all of your stakeholders.  A good organisational story describes your destiny and, in doing so, shapes it.  It falls to leaders to develop and tell such stories because if they cannot convey them with clarity and conviction, nor can anyone else.  And as our CEO found to his cost, the fundamental human imperative to tell stories of belonging, tradition, direction and success will fill any available vacuum.

Fortunately the same storytelling imperative that can cause such narrative havoc, is also its solution.  All organisational leaders also tell stories.  But if they don’t form those stories carefully and reflectively, if the stories they tell don’t respond to the world in which we operate, they are destined to fail.

Learn how to tell effective stories, and we can all live happily ever after.