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How to Model Leadership through Storytelling

Story-led leaders take on new roles in their team and model new approaches to leadership, shifting organisational culture for the better.

We’ve all had that frustrating boss who encourages us to take care of our mental health, only to implode in the next team meeting. Or the manager who preaches the importance of work-life balance but sends emails at midnight. Then there’s the director who talks about fostering a collaborative environment but reserves the right to make the final call. As employees, it was easy to judge them and think we could do better. Now that we’ve stepped into leadership ourselves, we’ve been forced to reframe our assumptions and expectations. 

Leadership is no walk in the park. It demands that we adapt to fluctuating systems in the business and varied personalities in the team; all the while keeping our own emotions in check to carry the success of the group. But if we aren’t bringing our full selves to our role as leaders – are we really modelling leadership and showing our people the most robust and effective way to ‘be’ in the workplace?  

The challenges of leadership

A balancing act of expectations

Leading is a balancing act. Some of us are criticised for taking on too much and burning out in the process. Others are told we’re not doing enough, or are failing to meet the expectations of people who rely on us. We’re expected to be a visionary, a strategist, and a motivator. But we also need to be light-touch, a back-up, and the trouble-shooter. The reality of leadership is a tightrope walk between these extremes.

Offering something for everyone

Leaders are often accused of not communicating clearly, resulting in conflict and team breakdowns. To hit the right pitch, leaders must navigate the complexities of human dynamics. Every team member is different, with unique strengths, weaknesses, and motivations. Understanding these nuances and moving away from a ‘one size fits all’ approach can be incredibly challenging, often leading to frustration and disconnect within the team.

Wearing the leadership mask

Although leaders are human, they are often seen as creatures quite separate from their teams. This creates pressure to maintain invisible boundaries even in the face of personal and professional challenges. Despite their own circumstances, leaders are expected to be a pillar of strength for their team and provide stability and direction when things get tough. Maintaining a professional mask can make leaders susceptible to stress and burnout.

Modelling leadership through the stories you tell

Ultimately, leadership is about service. It’s about putting the needs of the team and the organisation above personal interests. But that doesn’t mean that leadership can’t be personal. We make leadership personal by bringing stories into everything we do. 

The 5 ways stories humanise leadership

1. Stories rewrite expectations of ‘leadership’

Story-led leaders create new leadership personas that embody the best of human behaviours. When leaders start to see themselves as characters in their own stories—taking on roles like the Hero (the best Heroes make very human mistakes, fall and get back up again)—organisational culture begins to shift.

2. Stories help you illustrate business and personal values

By regularly sharing stories, leaders can humanise their leadership and create deeper connections with their teams. Stories allow leaders to paint a picture of their values and experiences in a way that resonates with the listener’s own values, concerns, fears and hopes. When a story-led leader shares a story about overcoming a challenge or learning from a mistake, it can inspire and motivate the team by showing that it’s okay to be vulnerable and human.

3. Stories lead communication from a people-first mindset

Storytelling helps leaders convey complex messages in relatable ways by positioning themselves or others at the centre of information. Instead of issuing directives or delivering dry PowerPoint, story-led leaders illustrate their vision and strategy with anecdotes, vignettes and narratives. This is human-centred leadership at its peak.

4. Stories make your message matter

Stories provide context. They help people put themselves in a situation and picture the outcome. When people see the bigger picture and the part they play in a shared goal, they are more likely to be engaged and committed. Long after the story is finished, they will remember you message, and why they feel this way. Stories build empathy.

5. Stories ultimately break down false boundaries

Stories can bridge the gap between a leader and their team. By sharing personal anecdotes and insights, leaders can break down the invisible barriers that often separate them from their team members. This fosters trust and openness, encouraging team members to share their own stories and perspectives. Storytelling can form the foundation of a collaborative and respectful culture.

Shifting from old leadership models to story-led leadership

The old expectations of leaders are hard to uphold. Eventually, something or someone breaks or is sacrificed for the greater good (often the leader themselves). Storytelling helps leaders break free from the traditional ‘management’ narrative we’ve absorbed through our own experience as employees. Story-led leaders create new leadership personas that embody the best of human behaviours. When leaders start to see themselves as characters in their own stories—taking on new roles in their team and modelling new approaches to leadership—organisational culture begins to shift for the better.

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