The Leader as a Storyteller
In my leadership development programs, I work a lot with storytelling.
One of the disadvantages of this approach is participant’s reaction to the term “storytelling”. Notice your own reaction at the moment. Are you on the verge of clicking your way out of this post because it is trivialising the serious business of your leadership?
I take storytelling very seriously and believe that business leaders should also. Far from being a lightweight concept, exceptional storytelling sits at the heart of exceptional leadership.
One of the (many) remarkable things about how we process stories is that we can distinguish a ‘theory-of-mind’. We are mind-readers, and can mentally put ourselves in the shoes of other people.
The classic experiment used by developmental psychologist working with children is called the Sally-Anne test. This is played out with two dolls called Sally and Anne. A scene is enacted whereby Sally comes on stage and puts a marble in a basket with a lid. She then leaves the stage to go for a walk. While she is out of the room, Anne opens the basket, takes the marble and moves it to a box. Sally re-enters the room and the child is asked “Where will Sally look for the marble”. The answer to us is quite simple – Sally will look in the basket as that is where she left it and she doesn’t know that Anne moved it. We have a ‘theory-of-mind’ which allows us to understand Sally’s mind; to put ourselves ‘in Sally’s shoes’. We are mind readers. However simple this might appear, it is an advanced brain function. Apart from a rudimentary ability in some advanced apes, this a uniquely human capability. It does not develop until around four years of age in children and never develops at all in severely autistic children (Baron-Cohen, Leslie, & Frith, 1985).
Leadership is only possible if both the leader and follower have a theory-of-mind. Leadership uses theory-of-mind to create joint intentionality. If a leader has an intention, they need to influence another person to have the same intention. Creating this joint intentionality requires a theory-of-mind. As a leader talks to another person, they are constantly checking in on joint intentionality by using their theory-of-mind.
Say that you want something done as a leader. You have what is called a first-order intentionality – you as an individual intend to do something. When you decide to delegate it to a subordinate you want to create second-order intentionality. As you approach your team member you are busy reading their mind using your theory-of-mind. You are putting yourself in their shoes so that you can position your request to be successful. You take notice of their verbal response but you also looked for non-verbal clues as well to convince yourself of their intention to do what you asked. You are checking that two minds, your own and theirs, have the same intention hence second-order intentionality.
But what if you are intent on delegating to someone who doesn’t report to you? Now your success or otherwise also depends on that person’s boss. How will they respond when they hear that you have made a request of their direct report? Not only do you need to read the mind of the person that you are delegating to, you also need to read the mind of their boss. Three minds to check, hence third order intentionality.
This is an incredible talent, but you don’t stop there. Say you are communicating a change of responsibilities in your team at a staff function. Generation of the monthly budget pack will move from Claire in Accounts to Usan in Business Improvement. You understand that despite all the effort that has gone into managing the change, that Claire could feel a loss of credibility associated with move. So, now you are speaking at the function and communicating the change.
As well as outlining the reasons for the change, you go out of your way to genuinely thank Claire for the exceptional work that has been done in the past, for her professionalism and dedication in the face of difficult data gathering. You are trying to put a stop to any gossip.
Here you are engaging with four minds – your own, Claire’s, Usan’s and your judgement of the average mindset of the rest of the staff. It is fourth-order intentionality - you intend  that Claire feels valued , Usan is inclined to be collaborative  and that the average mindset of the group is inclined to treat the change positively . This is an amazing feat of mental capability, and yet one that you can do with minimal effort.
It is no accident that this trajectory takes us to the role of storytelling. Listening to advanced storytelling requires fifth-order intentionality. When you watch a play, you engage your own mind to keep track of mindsets of the four main characters on stage. The playwright requires sixth-order intentionality as she is anticipating your reaction as an audience member. This extraordinary feat of mental capacity and agility is probably the reason that while most of us can revel in a great story, very few of us write great stories. When it comes to leadership however, we need to be a great author.
The telling and interpretation of fictitious stories is one of the most advanced functions of the human brain. In fact, stories and religion (a particularly powerful form of storytelling) are the only activities that require the full capacity of our very advanced brain (Dunbar, Barrett, & Lycett, 2007).
Which leaves us the question of why this capability developed in humans. How did it benefit our evolution as a species and our advancement as a society?
The answer is that leadership of large scale change always requires sixth-order intentionality and therefore story telling is the only mechanism available to us as leaders to enact such change.
When it comes to leadership development, there is nothing trivial about storytelling.
Baron-Cohen, S., Leslie, A. M., & Frith, U. (1985). Does the autistic child have a “theory of mind”? Cognition, 21(1), 37–46.
Dunbar, R. I. M., Barrett, L., & Lycett, J. (2007). Evolutionary Psychology : A Beginner’s Guide: Human Behaviour, Evolution and the Mind. Oxford: Oneworld Publications.