Getting Ahead by Telling a Good Story

"Leading So People Can Follow" by Erika Andersen
"Leading So People Can Follow" by Erika Andersen

GUEST AUTHOR BLOG: by Erika Andersen author of "Leading So People Will Follow."

Why do we love stories so much?

Even as adults, when we hear that magic phrase, Once upon a time, something in us sits up and starts to listen.

Stories have played an essential role throughout human history. Until the past few hundred years, few people could read or write. Any information or knowledge key to health, safety, even survival, had to be passed from one person to another verbally. Stories are a great way to communicate critical information: they're memorable and easily replicated, and they connect more deeply with people than a mere recitation of the facts.

Hearing a terrifying story about a little girl being eaten by a wolf, for instance, was a much better deterrent to children prone to wandering alone in the woods than a simple admonition could ever be.

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And even in this age of near-universal literacy, where thousands of books are published every month and the Internet offers more information than anyone could absorb in an entire lifetime, we're still drawn to stories.

Folktales are especially fascinating to us. Over the centuries, simple folk and fairytales became the vehicle for every critical message: not just how to stay safe and be a good member of the tribe, but how to do the right thing, be an honorable person, and – yes – how to lead.

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There's something else that's been true throughout human history: until the past few hundred years, choosing a leader was a matter of life-or-death. Choose poorly, and you were much likely to starve or be killed by invading enemies. Being able to choose good leaders was a group and individual survival mechanism. So it makes sense that insights about this important aspect of human life would show up in folktales – those instruction manuals for pre-literate society.

All over the world, every culture has "leader tales" – stories in which a young hero has to demonstrate a handful of attributes in order to slay the monster, win the princess, become the king – and live happily ever after. Across cultures and throughout time, these stories are amazingly similar in terms of the attributes they describe. I believe these stories are our looking-for-leaders wiring made explicit: they are saying, in effect, "Only allow people who demonstrate these qualities to lead."

Six "acceptable leader" attributes show up over and over again in these stories; they are: far-sighted, passionate, courageous, wise, generous and trustworthy.

That is, we require leaders who share a compelling and inclusive view of a future we can achieve together (far-sighted); who remain committed to that vision and to us and the enterprise through adversity and challenge (passionate); who can make difficult decisions with limited information, even when it's uncomfortable for them (courageous); who reflect on their experience, learn from it, share their learning and strive to make the right decision (wise); who believe in us and share what they have – knowledge, power, authority, and resources (generous); and who – most of all – can be relied upon to keep their words and do what they say they will do (trustworthy).

Even now, when we no longer have to rely upon stories to learn how to be a good and useful member of society – stories can still provide us with important insights into those aspects of leadership that are timeless and universal. In folktales, we read about tthe qualities people need to see in their leaders before they will fully 'sign up'; the leader attributes that make people turn to a leader and say "I'm with you – let's go."

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About the author: Erika Andersen is a nationally-known leadership coach and the founder of Proteus International, a consulting, coaching and training firm focused uniquely on leader readiness. She is the author of "Leading So People Will Follow."