One of the most important truths of effective leadership is also one of the most overlooked. It is this: Leadership requires narration.
Said another way, “He who tells the story frames the world.”
This is simple, really. Great leadership narrates. It interprets the world. It explains why things are done.
I first learned this from my mother. She was a narrator. She explained the world as she herded her three children through it. Every time the US Army reassigned her husband to some new post and a long trip in our Ford Country Squire station wagon began, Mom would make sure that all twenty-some volumes of the Book of Knowledge were squeezed into the car with us. Then, when we drove by something new or unusual, one of the children would be asked to read aloud about it.
I remember reading why Louisiana has parishes and not counties. Mom read about who Nathan Bedford Forest was and I still remember her words. When we saw signs giving the WPA credit for a construction project, my sister read to us about one of President Franklin Roosevelt’s better ideas, the Works Progress Administration. Mom would always add her thoughts where the Book of Knowledge left off.
If we passed old, dilapidated slave shacks on a drive through the South, Mom would say, “Just imagine how horrible it was.” All in the car would grow quiet in reflection. “Think about what it was like to be owned,” Mom would say with emotion in her voice. “To have no ownership of yourself. Your children belonged to the master. Your spouse could be sold to a nearby plantation. Or a faraway plantation. You were worked to death for someone else’s benefit. Then, these shacks were all you had for a home. Just think about what this would do to your soul.”
These calls to reflection sounded a thousand times. I can still hear my mother’s voice as I look out on the world today, her words framing my understanding of all I see.
That’s leadership. Interpreting the world and in doing so making your listeners better people. Leaders narrate what they do. They narrate why things are done on the job. They illuminate traditions, celebrate past achievements, and explain everything of importance in view. All who hear perceive reality differently.
I once visited the Guinness Storehouse in Dublin for research I was doing. One of the arts of Guinness lore is the unique way a pint of Guinness should be “drawn.” There are several steps involved and a certain dexterity required that I certainly lacked. Yet the girl who taught us how to do the blessed pour was so skilled in her narration that she could tell nearly the entire Guinness story, past and present, in the time it took to fill a pint from start to foaming head.
That’s leadership. The parents who explain family traditions lead their children into understanding and character. The father who talks aloud of patriotism and sacrifice while hanging the flag on the Fourth of July or the mother who explains Thanksgiving or the employer who narrates why all his employees are paid to work at the homeless shelter during the Christmas season—all are leading, all are elevating, and all are building a culture. That’s what leadership does.
So, here’s the assignment. Check your narration. Check the narration of those who lead with you. Don’t farm this task out and don’t leave it unexamined. Narrating is leading. How are you narrating redemptively, transformingly, for your family, your friends, for those you lead and for all others whose lives you hope to shape?
Narrate what is done, why it is done and where it all ought to lead. Talk while you do. Talk while, as scriptures say, you are “on the way.” It is one of the great arts of leading well.
That’s it. Happy St. Patrick’s Day, and have a good weekend.
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