Annually, I co-facilitate a weeklong women’s leadership retreat with executive women from a variety of organizations around the world. These women come to the retreat ready to learn, grow and evolve, a process that is accomplished through their own willingness to explore their personal and professional challenges and triumphs. Egos are checked at the door, as each leader commits to exploring the narrative of her own life.
Early in the week, we ask participants to describe what they hope their leadership legacy will be, and the journey it would take to make that a reality. We didn’t realize when we asked this year’s group this question what a master class on the power of story we’d receive in response.
Ellen, an HR head for a manufacturing company, was the first executive to speak. She shared that she wanted to leave behind a healed organization in which all employees were treated with respect. This goal became her focus when she discovered that another senior leader was sexually harassing women in the organization and someone had leaked news of this to the press.
The company’s reputation was on the line, so Ellen was naturally interested in minimizing the damage to it. Yet, her larger concern was for the targets of this heinous behavior.
“I interviewed each of the victims at a conference we were holding at large hotel,” Ellen shared. “To my surprise, the line of women who wanted to talk with me stretched down the hallway and around the corner. It took all day and into the evening to speak with everyone, and when the last woman left the room, I just put my head in my hands and cried. I couldn’t believe this was happening in my company, on my watch, and that one person had caused so much pain in the organization.”
Her emotion was raw and palpable.
Ellen’s story prompted a rich dialogue among retreat participants about the policies and practices that could prevent such incidents in the future. So moved were participants by Ellen’s story that the discussion resulted in the leaders working together to construct a set of guidelines for the implementation of such policies.
This prompted new commitments among the leaders to apply the guidelines in their own companies. The group observed that just one executive sharing one story had the power to change the culture in other organizations — and the lives of employees around the world.
The women also spoke about personal challenges they’d experienced and what those challenges had taught them about the impact of authenticity. Macy, a marketing leader in an online services company, described a fateful phone call from her doctor following her annual physical. It was the call that no one wants to receive. She’d been diagnosed with cancer.
Since it was going require a rigorous fight to save her life and take her out of her role for several months, Macy decided that what was otherwise a private matter could not be kept confidential. She knew that it was best for the organization to be open and honest, so she told her CEO that knowledge of her condition should be shared with others on the management team and with the larger employee population. In this way, Macy reasoned, rumors would not fester and distract others from the focused work required to achieve the organization’s goals.
“The gift that I received from being real about my situation was incredible. I couldn’t believe the outpouring of support from employees, some of whom I’d never even met,” Macy exclaimed. “In fact, one man contacted me to say that he was a cancer survivor but was embarrassed to share his struggle with his co-workers. Because I’d been open about what was happening to me, he told me that I’d made it possible for him to do likewise.”
Macy’s authenticity, and her courageous sharing of her own story, created a more open and compassionate culture in her company — one in which employees now trust that when they are going through tough personal challenges, they’ll have the support of their co-workers.
There is compelling science behind the impact of story. Research has shown that stories have the power they do because they influence activity in the insula and frontal cortex regions of the brain. In fact, through a process called neural coupling, a storyteller’s brain can become synchronized with the individuals listening to the story. This phenomenon allows leaders to use story as a tool to seed ideas and emotions in the listener’s brain.
Stories spark transformation in ourselves, in others and in our organizations. They allow us to have an experience that inspires collaboration, builds compassion and creates deeper insight into how we share many more commonalities than we do differences. As a leader, authentic communication through story makes you more accessible to others and gives your team permission to be open and honest with you.
What story will you share today?
Alaina Love is CEO of Purpose Linked Consulting and co-author of “The Purpose Linked Organization: How Passionate Leaders Inspire Winning Teams and Great Results” (McGraw-Hill). She is a recovering HR executive, a global speaker and leadership expert, and passionate about everything having to do with, well … passion. Her passion archetypes are Builder, Transformer and Healer. You can learn more about how to grow leaders, build passionate teams and leverage passion to create great customer outcomes here.
When she’s not working with her Fortune 500 client base, Love is busy writing her next book, “Passionality, The Art and Science of Finding Your Passion and Living Your Bliss,” which explores the alignment of personality, purpose and passion, and the science of how it contributes to our well being. Follow Love on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube or her blog.