My Great Uncle Alex used to sit in his rocking chair in the porch of the house. He would tell stories of his time when he was a rancher in Chile, painting a picture that made me decide I wanted to be a cowboy. And that it was possible to do so.
Even at a very early age, I was fascinated by a good story, and even more so when it was told by someone who had experienced some extraordinary things in his life; some things that most of us will never experience, some things we may dream of experiencing, and other stories where we are glad we were not the character being described, or indeed the storyteller themselves…
I will never know the extent of, or lack of, embellishment in his stories.
Not that it matters.
You see, he was the first person who truly helped me believe that anything was possible; that I could think beyond my self imposed walls of frustration and limitations, and stretch myself as he had done all of those years ago.He had lived the dream; his dream.
Sat in this rickety old chair, in a mining village in Fife, Scotland, was a man who could tell a story not only from experience, but with emotion and feeling, engaging me with his authenticity. I can still picture him in his maroon cord jacket, back slightly bent, pipe on the arm of his chair, gazing out of the window, not over a great expanse of land with cattle, but out onto an adjoining grey tenement building.
But when he was telling his stories, he transported me to the roaming dusty landscapes. I was there with him.
As a leader, do you tell stories? And to what purpose?
Great Uncle Alex was engaging, authentic and charismatic.
Ask yourself, ‘how would people describe me in three words’ and make a note of them. Then consider asking people how they would describe you in three words, and compare their list with yours.
I recall doing this some years ago with a group of managers I led, and the answers they gave me revealed so much about my style of leading them. And my need to change. I started telling more stories, painting pictures of what success looked like, how others I had worked with had achieved great success and learnt from their mistakes and become better leaders.
You see, I realised that I had to be more like Great Uncle Alex, and help them know that, they too, could become great leaders.
I’ll leave the final word on this with Bill Clinton.
“Perhaps most important, I learned that everyone has a story – of dreams and nightmares, hope and heartache, love and loss, courage and fear, sacrifice and selfishness. All my life I’ve been interested in other people’s stories. I wanted to know them, understand them, feel them. When I grew up into politics, I always felt the main point of my work was to give people a chance to have better stories.” – Bill Clinton