A Story from the Heart

I finished 2015 emerging, blinking, from 3 months tucked away in a glorious bubble learning ‘The Heart and Craft of storytelling.’ http://www.schoolofstorytelling.com. You might well ask ‘why so long?’ – and believe me, when you’ve been sharing 2 bathrooms between 12 people for a prolonged period of time I asked myself that many times! But time flew and there is still so much more to explore.

While I’ve been advocating storytelling for authentic leadership for a long time, I feel far better equipped to use and share the craft now. In a packed three months I’ve learned how to find and express authority and lightness through voice and gesture. I‘ve learned how to tell archetypal wonder tales, creation myths and autographical stories in order to create understanding and self -awareness. But possibly the greatest lesson I learned was the how critical ‘heart’ is to create shared meaning and powerful response.

Every Thursday in our Storytelling hut was performance night. This is where we practiced our arts in front of residents of Emerson College, family, friends and well-disposed ‘outsiders’. Our audience would pile onto mammoth purple cushions and squashy settees with the latecomers relegated to hard chairs, and we would regale them with stories we’d learned that week and those we’d created. Our main purpose was to test our new skills – theirs to relax and enjoy. By and large both expectations were satisfied.

However, one Thursday was different. Fired by the constant depressing news from ‘outside’, we decided to devote our penultimate performance day to raising money for refugees – victims of war. At first we weren’t really sure who we wanted to help, we just knew that we needed to express solidarity with fellow human beings who had lost so much. Then we heard from a friend about a boy washed up on Lesbos. He was fleeing for his life from Syria and desperate to study then go back and help his country. But he had broken his specs getting off the boat trying to reach dry land – imagine that those of us who don’t have good vision? So we had our purpose, we asked people to help us raise enough money to get this boy new specs and we committed ourselves to finding a big audience and making our performances really count.

Students and audience of all different ages, nationalities and personalities came together to create, retell or simply hear stories of alienation, loss, compassion and redemption painted with images that made us laugh, cry and sigh as one. The evening ended with a Norwegian peace poem, where each verse was read in a different language, Norwegian, Italian, Chinese, French English and sign language for the deaf. Students joined hands and sang – the audience sang – it was electric.

We raised more than enough for new specs– enough for many evening meals for a whole refugee camp in fact. Pondering afterwards we wondered what that boy would see with his new specs and what stories refugees might tell over their meals. Many in the audience went away telling us of their inspiration to do more in service of our shared humanity.

I will remember that evening forever, the joy it brought and the power it wrought. I have a strong intent to use my new skills and my awoken heart to break down cultural division and judgments and limiting assumptions about difference.

I ask you to hold me to it and if you do, I’ll tell you a story about Red the fox.…….

Becoming a Trusted Advisor without losing your head

Watching Wolf Hall* on TV this week, I find myself wondering what would have happened if Cromwell had been less of a ‘fixer’ and better able to coach Henry.

This month I ran the inaugural Master Class –‘Coaching leaders to communicate effectively’ for the Institute of Internal Communications. http://ioic.org.uk/news/2014/november-2014/coaching-leaders-to-communicate-effectively.html
The delegates found it challenging, a bit scary and in some cases a breakthrough experience – just like a healthy coaching session in fact. What they found challenging though wasn’t the material or the practice; it was the concept of ‘letting go’, of being seen as the expert advisor.

The challenge was fuelled by two underlying fears. The first – that others won’t see our value if we don’t lay it out in front of them. The second – if leaders can do it as well as we can, what’s left here for us? When we’ve worked long and hard to gain the respect that comes from our knowledge and experience of communication, clearly we’re not going to give up the expert tag in a hurry.

And we shouldn’t. As consultants in or out of house, our hard won expertise is our currency. But being a trusted advisor is so much more than being the one with all the answers. Sometimes we’re so eager to tell our leaders what we know – to spell it out – we forget to listen, deeply. Trust comes from mutual respect and valuing each other so, showing your leader the respect of drawing out and hearing their answers before imposing yours makes sense- doesn’t it?

Of course we have to know when it’s right to adopt a coaching style and then be able to flex our style according to the context and individual leader need. We also need the ‘license’ to coach which usually comes from a proven track record of getting the basics right and offering relevant and useful insights. The next step is being brave enough to take a risk and let go of needing to be the expert all the time. This is when we’ll be fully experienced as a trusted advisor and appropriate business partner.

Perhaps if Cromwell had taken this risk Henry might have stopped at two wives and fewer people may have lost their heads….

* For the uninitiated http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p02gfy02

Can Authenticity be Manufactured?

Posted by Sheila in Authentic Leaders, Transforming Leaders on 26th November 2012 | Comments Off
This was one of the questions that came up in the IOIC  seminar  that I spoke at on Wednesday.  We were discussing a video clip of Hilary Clinton following polls that put her behind Obama in the race for the White House in 2008. She was talking from the heart – or so I believed  -  and while much of the room agreed with me, some were suspicious. The implication from the doubters was she’d been trained to deliberately turn on the tears to manipulate the audience. If that was the case the media trainers had done one heck of a job right down to the bags under the eyes and the sheer exhaustion in her voice!

To me she showed herself as a woman as well as a politician and I identified with her as a committed tired woman determined to do her best.  (Apparently so did women in US as her popularity ratings went up dramatically following the broadcast.)  I don’t think you can manufacture or train that ‘from the heart’ response.

However I do think as a communication coach you can help the leader weigh the options and risks around how much emotional vulnerability to reveal at critical moments. You can also help them acknowledge the different facets of themselves and recognise which facets will best talk to their followers – if you want to connect with other women you can show the you that struggles with your weight and cares about your children as well as the leader facet that cares about your country and its future. In essence you can’t tell a leader what to do to be seen as authentic but you can guide them in how to maximise the opportunities.

You’ll never get all the doubters to believe from one apparently authentic experience, but coaching leaders to develop a sense of self and ‘other’ awareness that is backed up by appropriate and consistent actions will generate a greater experience of their authenticity.

See what you think