Leadership and Storytelling: Encouraging Ethos of Erudition and Transformation

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For a long time, as a child, I thought my grandfather was a professional storyteller. In chilling months, he used to start a Dastan after early dinners to amuse long winter nights. Usually, he stops at a particular time and leaves us with excitement, curiosity, imagination, and at times sentimental emotions to start episodic Dastan again the next evening. His stories conveyed lessons, messages, and perspectives.

Even as a child I believed his Dastans evoked feelings, created empathy, triggered tears, and aroused rage among all the listeners including my acquitted and oblivious being.

Then as a leadership facilitator, motivational speaker and teacher educator, I understand stories of my grandfather that provided a framework for finding meaning in our lives and the world.

And I believe now that all humans are storytellers, and stories can help shape beliefs and actions that are inclusive and supporting or exclusive and destructive.

Through this annotation, I strive to encourage you to reflect upon how you learn and teach through story and to think consciously about the potentially positive roles of a story as pedagogy and a smart tool of leadership to communicate, pass on wisdom, and spur imagination. 

As long as people have spoken to each other, well before the dawn of written language, storytelling assisted to pass down cultural, ethical, and other information from generation to generation.

Storytelling through oral tradition dates back to different points in history, depending on the culture.

These traditions use song, chant and epic poetry to tell stories that had been handed down through generations and eventually written and published.

Mythologies were also first passed on through word of mouth. Even now, in a contemporary and mostly literate era, verbalized communication is still arguably more important than written communication.

There is evidence that humans may even learn better when (some) content is presented as a story rather than a lecture, for a variety of reasons (Herreid 2007).

The rise in podcasts, video casts and other media that lend themselves to storytelling offers a new mode for learners to interact with course material, and may even be seen as a contemporary swirl on the perception of learning via storytelling.

It is proven that common communication approaches include dispensing of information and data only, while storytelling as a communication style makes a profound impact on the listener in many ways like, primarily storytelling stimulates a function in the brain called ‘neural coupling’ which enables the listeners to adopt the ideas presented in the story into their ideas and experiences.

This makes the content in the communication approach more personal and relatable.

Secondly, storytelling also creates a mirroring pattern in the brain which allows the listeners to experience similar brain activity as each other as well as the storyteller.

This lets the team understand and builds motivation amongst the listeners. Thirdly, when a person listens to an emotional story, the brain releases a chemical called ‘dopamine’ which stimulates memory and helps the person to remember that piece of communication accurately and for a longer period.

Finally, Oxytocin, a neurochemical, is released when we feel safe or are shown kindness and it motivates cooperation with others around us.

Researchers found that during character-driven stories and narratives oxytocin is synthesized which generates emotions like empathy and cooperation which creates reliability and willingness to work with others. 

Storytelling has been associated with leadership by a variety of scholars in the leadership literature.

It is a more common word with leadership practitioners and consultants and has also been used interchangeably with “narrative” in much of the scholarly research

The organizational and knowledge management literature has found that storytelling can be applied as a practice for shared learning and the development of mutual understanding.

The management research has found narrative to have a role in developing organizational culture, strategic management, employee loyalty, organizational commitment, and entrepreneurship.

Stories can aid as a mental map that helps individuals recognize what is significant and how things are done in an organization, group and society.

According to an explorative study, leaders use stories to motivate, inspire, reduce conflict, build trust, influence superiors, and establish a clear direction.

Storytelling can also help leaders be more strategic and sustain members’ loyalty when guiding an organization through difficult changes. Executive leaders who tell stories can also transform the way people think, create a shared vision, as well as endowment ease and optimism.

Effective leaders never command motivation, results, creativity or innovation, but they can lead members to these outcomes through purposeful storytelling.

A leader that recognizes which stories to tell to get their leadership message across in a purposeful way can be more effective at accomplishing their strategic goals. 

The aptitude of telling stories is a significant leadership practice yet a skill that can also be challenging for some leaders.

A common block that may foil leaders from telling stories is the dread that they don’t have any stories to share, or do not feel easy telling personal stories. Sharing a story can be perilous as some stories could flop and also diminish the reliability and integrity of the leader.

Hitherto, leaders that know how to echo their life practices through stories can surge in their ability to communicate more genuinely to others. 

Getting personal in storytelling and thinking outside the box is an important factor in charming listeners.

The storyteller must facilitate the connection between leadership and employees through communication and learning by easing emotions and sentiments through visualization of imagination.

A leader, who tells a story, must know the power of a story comes from the connotation of its message, rather than the facts of the story and the transition of that message can be realized by the response of the story. One must consider members’ responses and seek feedback to learn how it impacted them.

Through listener feedback, one can learn what works and what doesn’t work when it comes to their storytelling approach. One must ask how listeners feel after hearing the story and what they remember most about it.

Then, allowing them to ask questions and take note of the listeners’ responses and find out if their takeaways from the story are the ones the storyteller intended them to have.

We all know people’s attention spans are getting increasingly briefer. so, a swift, punchy story with a strong message can be far more impactful than a lengthy one. 

A leader can use the skill of storytelling at any time like when taking on a new position or when orienting a new report or when launching a project.  

Accurate information, so readily available to us today through electronic media, lacks the “emotional impact” of stories. Emotion is the critical element that makes information relevant and memorable.

Educational Leaders can also use stories as a Pedagogical Tool.

Gail Goodwin says, “Good teaching is one-fourth preparation and three-fourths theatre!” Telling a story is not only a powerful means for the teacher as a way of unifying information but as a self-motivated means for students to express what they have learned.

The enchanted storytelling changes the atmosphere in the classroom and in so doing enhances the learning environment.  

Training storytelling by educational leaders also trains teachers in presentation skills, communication skills, and writing skills. Using storytelling as a technique of instruction and assessment supports educational objectives and learning outcomes like refining verbal skills, gaining self-confidence, discovering the meaning of events, developing a love for language and stories, encouraging higher levels of cognitive thinking, gaining a more in-depth understanding of narration, improving imaginative skills, internalizing the traditional structure and conventions of stories, improving writing skills, and encouraging active participation in the creation of stories. 

Storytelling can be applied to the classroom setting by creating a story to demonstrate new concepts or ideas, expressing a topic or theme by narrating a story about it, explaining historical events by narrating them as stories, inventing and telling the story of historical figures meeting one another or about characters from different stories meeting, putting knowledge that needs to be assessed in a narrative form and telling the story to the teacher and class, taking a familiar story and retelling it with characters and situations based on curricular material or Placing yourself in a familiar story and narrating the events from your first-person point of view.

Storytelling makes intricate concepts easily comprehensible.

Leadership and management’s role extends far beyond planning and issuing orders. One cannot dictate or instruct a worker or member to be more motivated, but through storytelling, one can inspire them. When management leads with a purposeful story, we are likely to astonishingly find workers and members who are following with a subconscious enthusiasm and readiness to excel in their professions.

The author is Senior Academic Officer SCERT J&K

DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author.

The facts, analysis, assumptions and perspective appearing in the article do not reflect the views of GK.

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