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How to be a better leader and live to tell the story

An editor was once asked why he would not review management and self-help books in his magazine. His reply was that the best source of inspiration on how to be a good manager was to read good fiction, and the same applied to becoming a better person. This may sound glib, but in 2010 the Harvard Business School launched a course entitled, “The Business World: Moral and Social Inquiry Through Fiction.” It is now taught regularly at the school (renamed “The Moral Leader” programme).

But reading Macbeth, you can’t help recognise the simple truth that in order to be a good CEO you need to be a moral person. Your ambition (Macbeth’s desire to be king) should not usurp your integrity (killing the incumbent king).The language of business, however, is all around us and is surely the most jargon-laden of all that we engage with everyday. Think of the thousands of books devoted to “management and leadership”; the endless acronyms from APV (Administrative Point of View, i.e. the “official” position) to GRP (Gross Ratings Points); and the numerous comparisons to business as a war (e.g. “The Art of War for Managers”) or sport. No wonder it is also often the most misunderstood (how many of us have been to war and how many play competitive sport?).

I am not saying we should abandon reading the thoughts and insights of great management practitioners such as Peter Drucker or Tom Peters. Nor am I saying we should pick up Ernest Hemingway, Shakespeare, or JK Rowling when we are facing a management crisis.

But good leaders are able to “tell” a good story. I don’t mean making up stuff. I mean being able to see the arc that comprises a good story: a beginning, a middle, and an end. In business, everyday, we must be able to envisage these three steps. And be willing to adapt when the arc begins to dip. We are all story tellers, whether it be in planning a new product launch, adapting to a new market environment, pulling together a new management team, making plans to move home, working out a surprise party for your loved one, or simply planning a great meal with friends. We need to envisage the beginning, the middle, and the end of our endeavour (the story).

Leadership generic 1

Of course, there are things that make us better leaders (storytellers). We all know the cliché: when the going gets tough, the tough get going. It means that your strengths and shortcomings are tested by adversity. How you learn to deal with it — in other words how you tell that story — is central to your credibility as a leader. If you can see the beginning of the story, but not the end, then you will have difficulty bringing your team along with you.

One of the defining characteristics often attributed to good managers is an obsessive devotion to their work. That may be so, but what I prefer to look for in a leader is an optimistic attitude to work (and life). People who tend to see only the downside of a situation can easily slip into a perpetual cycle of negativity. Everything is seen as a threat; change is feared, and inevitably the stress of believing that only bad things are going to happen makes the storyline crumble. They misunderstand the beginning, get lost in the middle, and never make the end.

A good leader will recognise that hard times requires a different story. Great leaders, will focus on the critical components that drive success, such as setting higher standards and making greater demands for efficiency, implementing better performance assessments, and refining business processes. Good leaders will turn the pressures that cause people to become pessimistic into a drive for more effective teamwork and providing opportunities for individual growth.

Numerous studies have been conducted of what constitutes a good leader. It usually comes down to two components: task management and people management. Task management is the ability to set goals, organise efforts, direct activity, provide corrective feedback, and set the general focus of efforts. The sort of stuff you can glean from a management book.

People management recognises the importance of communication, motivation, and encouragement. It is the ability to set the emotional tone of your workplace and inspire greater effort from others. It is the ability to tell a good story. And most people, in hard times, need a good story with an end because it lessens the ambiguity that adversity often creates.

The best leaders focus on both components. From a task standpoint, the critical challenge is keeping people focused on things that are under their control. You may not be able to affect what happens in the market, but you can reach out to your customers and provide great service. A sense of control helps people manage their stress and allows them to experience small wins that have a buffering effect.

From the people standpoint, a leader communicates a broader vision of the future and a sense of direction and purpose (the story arc). A leader, however, must be seen as a reliable source of information (even if it means admitting they don’t know). Regular, honest, candid, and consistent communication is a non-negotiable.

By linking today’s actions (the beginning) to a better future (the end) people gain a sense of perspective. By pointing out how one individual’s job links to a broader corporate strategy, that person has a greater sense of purpose and utility. A sense of purpose provides significant relief from the debilitating effects of stress. And never underestimate the importance of a sense of humour, always celebrate wins, find ways to have fun, and always thank people for what they are doing.

All the stories about leadership cannot ignore your own story. Self-management is inseparable from effective leadership. This includes managing your behaviour in ways conducive to more positive morale and action from your teams. This, in turn, will help them to manage their attitudes and behaviours towards appropriate outcomes.

In tough times, people often feel powerless, even victimised. A good leader helps people shift from the mind-set of the passive victim observing things from the sidelines to that of the athlete playing the game. A good story will focus on the fact that we always have choices and that, although we may not always control the final score, we do control how we play. If we play with integrity, stamina, optimism, and intensity, we can often surprise ourselves. And even if we lose, we can be proud of our performance.

A good leader emphasises that power resides within the individual and that something positive can come from a tough situation. The key is in helping people recognise the situation for what it is and find an appropriate way to deal with it.

So, look in the mirror and tell yourself the good story. Cast yourself in the leading role and set the tone. Be optimistic, pay attention to the tasks at hand, and always remember the infectious quality of energy and enthusiasm. And the power of a good story well told.


Human Rights Day








Craig Featherby

CEO: Carrick Wealth



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