Leadership as narrative: Idea #2 – Don’t just tell stories, build a narrative

This is post #2 of 5 in a series unpacking five big ideas about the role of storytelling and narrative in leadership. If you missed the first post then feel free to click here to get the context for what follows...

So let’s say you buy the idea that leadership has some kind of storytelling bent to it and the notion that in some way, we’re all artists… what next?

Well, idea #2 is a bit of what I’d call a “Woah boy” concept. It’s be easy to assume that idea #2 would be about how to tell better stories: maybe start talking about the idea of structure, characters, plot etc…

Woah boy!

We’ll get to that. But first there is another matter, a call to those on a leadership and storytelling journey to consider the level that they are thinking, speaking and acting at.

Because before they get to telling stories, the best leaders recognise that influencing others isn’t just about being able to spin a good yarn. The best leaders see the wood for the trees with their understanding and playing to the idea of having a grand narrative: a larger story that gives context, shape and meaning to those individual, momentary tales. For instance…

  • The “I have a dream!” speech saw Martin Luther King capture the imaginations of a nation with a compelling and well told story, but it only really made any sense inside the context of the unfolding grand narrative of black people being freed from oppression in post-slavery America.
  • Virgin’s escapades in becoming the world’s first space tourism operator find their meaning and credibility inside the grand narrative of over 40 years of Richard Branson’s big idea – Proving you can create a massive, global brand of companies that are part of a family rather than a hierarchy” whilst having as much FUN as possible.
  • And on a somewhat more down to earth level, the encounter I had today where I allowed my schedule to be disrupted to spend some time encouraging and affirming someone in an area they were struggling with might not mean much by itself. Yet placed inside of the grand narrative I’m looking to shape about being a guy who serves and raises up leaders around him then it fits… it connects… it finds meaning… it makes sense.

So, why is all this relevant? Well, again let’s start by defining our terms – What is Leadership?

As many people as you could ask for an opinion is probably just as many different answers you’d get back on how to define the idea “leadership“. Any definition is a reduction, so for a moment let’s just allow ourselves to adopt a crude and incomplete definition of leadership.

Leadership is the art of influencing, serving and enabling followers to go beyond the purposes they could otherwise fulfil without your presence.

If we adopt this definition we sit atop a hill where leaders have two objects in view: the interests of their followers and the accomplishment of worthwhile purposes. Part of the human condition is the inbuilt desire to be caught up in something worthwhile, to be involved in a cause that outlasts us, to end our days feeling that – somehow, and in some way – those days mattered.

In short: people are looking for a purposeful grand narrative that they can find a role within.

I wrote in a recent post on Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address that part of its ability to endure as a timeless piece of oratory is the simplicity and compelling way with which he made it clear exactly where those listening could fit in the context of the grand narrative of ending the Civil War that claimed over 85,000 lives at that one battle alone. A great leader therefore is one who creates or at least taps into a grand narrative and then enables followers to find their place in that unfolding story.

That leaves those of us who aren’t leading countries or multi-million dollar businesses considering how we apply the notion of having a grand narrative. I think it’s this…

To engage in a simple big idea that drives your team / family / department / organisation / life.

Now realise here that I’m not so much talking about a vision, but a simple (yet BIG) idea. When you look for it, you see grand narratives in play, each of which are marked by their having a single and gleaming thread of an idea running through them from beginning to end. And it’s true not just for the classic/best known stories of our time, but its also true in the life stories of great individuals, teams and organisations.

Classic Grand Narratives

  • Lord Of The Rings – Small’s ability to overcome Big.
  • The Bible – God’s unfolding plan of eternal salvation.
  • Star Wars – The Force, Family and Redemption (and the End of the Empire!)


  • Martin Luther King – Ending injustice.
  • Margaret Thatcher – Rolling back the state.
  • Mahatma Ghandi – Non-violent resistance.


My own big idea for the grand narrative I’m ‘writing’ is Raising up leaders one at a time with believing that clarity can come from complexity. Increasingly, that big idea informs how I think, directs what I do and shapes how I lead. And I think having that evolving grand narrative helps anyone following see what their part to play could be… which helps us connect, share and grow together in leading more purposeful lives.

So here’s the inevitable question. What’s the big idea for your context – your team? your business? your family? your life? How would having a grand narrative change the engagement of your followers? Let me know by leaving a comment in the box below/clicking the link above…

And because it’s always worth 1m19s of life here is an extract of Martin Luther King’s beautifully crafted “I have a dream” speech

Forest image courtesy of Van Pelt : CreativeCommons

About Sean
Writer, Reader, Leader, Trainer, Coach, Thinker, Hiker, Musician, Uncle, Writer, List-maker, Blogger

2 Responses to Leadership as narrative: Idea #2 – Don’t just tell stories, build a narrative

  1. Pingback: Leadership as narrative: Idea #3 – Bless Yourself with Space « MuchClearer

  2. Pingback: Leadership as narrative: Idea #2 – Don’t just tell stories, build a narrative | Story and Narrative | Scoop.it

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