Editor Astrid Schutte makes a very valid and well researched point in her latest article about leadership on the Dutch management website “ManagementSite.nl”. She discusses the apparent fact that “Real Leaders Tell a Good Story“, as she uses two examples of companies which ran through a re-evaluation of their approach. One company succeeded and the other did not. The successful company even got to set a standard within the industry it is in – care for the elderly – and its approach has been mimicked by all its competitors today. While not going into too much detail: the succesful company reformed from one which followed the advice of its educated employees to a company which followed the wishes and desires of its clients, the elderly, which resulted in the clients having a happier life under the care of the educated employees, making life, consequently work better for both.
How did this happen? Why was one leader able to get through a succesful transformation while the other falls short? Why was one able to set an example, while the other kept struggling at even convincing his direct reports? According to Astrid Schutte, much has to do with how both were and were not able to tell relevant stories about their business in a convincing matter. She argues that when an idea is communicated to its stakeholders, the frequency of them and zeal with which stories are told are an influencing factor to a succesful transmittence of an idea which all parties feel connected with.
She might be right indeed. Humans are notoriously difficult communicators. We suppose far too much that our correspondent has the same idea we have when we discuss a certain topic. We might be using the same vocabulary, but the hidden meaning behind its constituents, its words, is (sometimes subtely) different from sender to receiver. I sometimes think that we only use words to encode the image or idea we want to share and if that image is not decoded correctly by the receiving party, then communication fails – although we still might suppose it has not.
In other words, using stories to define your idea, enforces the potential success at broadcasting it. Stories activate the correct part of the brain, help put things in perspective and thus lead to more efficient communication. Stories make the abstract notion of an “idea” more visual and that might be the single best way to describe why they are so important: we all have very well trained photographic memories (try handing 100 different photographs to a subject and let them flip through each. Add 1 and ask the subject which one is new – you’ll be surprised how many subject get this right!). So stories are good, because stories create a picture.