Goodness in Stories of ...


As a storyteller, I often combine sad stories with one another. Mostly with a positive outcome, but often I use stories without a happy ending. Stories where listeners really have to think about what they just learned. Stories where there is no gold at the end of the rainbow. It’s amazing when such stories evoke all kinds of responses and conversations after my lectures, because people are relieved that they don’t always have to smile. Or stories that don’t push employees to take action. Stories don’t always have to be about our fantastic achievements, right?

It’s OK to be unhappy (sometimes).

There are days where I can’t get myself to do anything. It doesn’t happen often, but if it does, I just want to hide under the blankets and simply stay in bed. And then there are other days where I let myself go and eat and drink junk. Or I may not go to the gym, for example, or I won’t answer my phone. In fact, most Sundays I don’t work at all and try to be as close as possible to this negative ideal. But these days are often about reflection and giving myself the space to think creatively. I dwell on the dilemmas in my life and the potential opportunities they carry.

Learn to embrace the conflict in your storytelling.

I led a number of workshops last year about coping with change, and how you can use this in storytelling.

I found it surprising how many managers prefer to avoid conflicts. Not just in real life, but also in the stories they tell. I make it no secret that conflicts are often a challenge for me, but I know that every good story carries a conflict within. There’s no good story without a clear protagonist, opponent, plot … and also conflict.

Why don’t people like the element of conflict in stories? Probably because people are afraid of how others will respond. We don’t want others to be unhappy, even if that means that our own happiness is suffering. We think that if we confront others with conflicts, they will go home, paint their rooms black and listen to depressing music all day long.

Strong stories evoke every kind of emotion.

Humans experience a range of emotions. It is important to be aware of them and embrace them rather than to pursue only one emotion. The recent interviews that the editor of my book, Geert Degrande, and I have conducted with Belgian CEOs show time and again that strong leaders tell stories where conflict or pain is key. These CEOs have clearly learned to feel comfortable in sharing difficult, painful and even negative stories. Through introspection, and their awareness of the fact that some days are simply miserable, these managers emerge as authentic storytellers.

I’m therefore firmly convinced that only when managers devote sufficient attention to their own development can they ensure business effectiveness. Of course, much can be achieved by telling positive stories, but leaders can also benefit from sharing stories in which their anger, their conflicts, and in some cases, their own fears are key.

Searching for your own story as a leader results in finding who you are and what you stand for. Just yesterday I had a good conversation about this topic with business coach and life planner Cynthia Ghysels. She is guiding professionals to help them live stronger lives and work from their personal vision and values. Isn’t it true that you can only do a good job leading, managing and coaching when you do so from your own insights and experiences as well as from your own inspiration?

A great leader dives deeply into his or her stories.

Last June, I published my book, “Leadership, Storytelling and the Power of Connection: 5 story skills every manager must have.” In this book, I do away with the resistance that still exists against the use of emotions in strong leadership. This brings to mind the book I am currently reading, “The Power of Negative Emotion” by Todd Kashdan and Robert Biswas Denier. In their book, the authors suggest that feelings such as anger, boredom, guilt and fear may not be nice, but they are very useful. Anger can trigger creativity. Guilt ensures improvement. Doubts about yourself make for a better performance, and selfishness increases courage. That negative emotions can be helpful is something that became very clear to me in the leadership stories of the CEOs I interviewed recently. Because when I asked these leaders about the specific moments that shaped them into the leaders they are today, the best stories came up. Stories of deep self-awareness in which vulnerability is an important factor. Not being afraid to share these stories will not only show your strong personality, but will also ensure the necessary connections that all leaders are looking for today.

My advice for any manager who wants to be a good storyteller, is both difficult and easy.

Look for the core of your leadership. How do you make sense of your own life? How do you enrich the lives of your employees? Which values drive your leadership? Where and when did you have to make difficult choices? And how did you deal with the obstacles that perhaps stood in the way of the right choices? Let the answers to these questions be the source material for your leadership stories, and tell stories that transcend the issues of the day and that really matter more often. Do not avoid pain and conflict, but embrace these elements as necessary elements of your leadership story.

Many of my favorite poems, movies and music in all genres come from dark places. They arise from loss, despair, anger and cries for help. One of my most prized jazz singers, Bessie Smith, has a great catalog of work that comes from a place of pain. I can identify with this and see hope, even though she clearly tries to find her way through the pain.

My point is that we need more balance in leadership stories. “Negative emotions” as the authors of the book “The Power of Negative Emotion” say, “can help us to be emotionally flexible” in order to tell a variety of stories.

About the Author

Raf Stevens 07-15Raf Stevens has over 20 years’ experience in communications. Ten years ago he decided to follow his passion: storytelling. Since then Raf has helped dozens of organizations and their leaders in the search for stories to create a stronger connection. He is a partner of Anecdote and a licensed Storytelling for Leaders® trainer.

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