Imagine you’re coming home one evening when the rest of the family is in the middle of watching a movie you’ve never seen. They briefly acknowledge your presence, their eyes still transfixed to the screen. Your gaze follows theirs, and captured by the tensions, intrigued by the scene, and caught up with the characters, you squeeze into whatever space is left on the couch. You’ve joined the story.
But you have a ton of questions. Who are the good guys and who are the bad guys? What’s happened so far? Where did it all begin? What’s the big threat? Why is the guy in the blue shirt so anxious?
In the absence of answers, you begin making assumptions so that the story you are experiencing can make sense. But at the back of your mind, you have this nagging feeling that you have the story wrong, that your assumptions are wrong. So you sit back, experience the scenes, and little more. You have no context. You don’t know the story.
So it is when someone joins a new organization. Almost invariably, they land in the middle of the story, and they don’t know what’s going on. Who are the good guys? Who are the bad guys? Why is the head of such-and-such a department (the one in the blue shirt) so anxious?
This is where great leaders step in. They tell you the story. They hit the pause button on the remote, and they give you the details of the plot. They tell you what’s happened so far and what’s led up to the scene you’ve landed in. (No wonder the guy in the blue shirt is so worried!)
But great leaders do more than that. They not only tell you what’s happened so far, they consciously bring you into the story. You’re no longer watching the movie, you’re in the movie. You’re a bona fide character with a role to play.
And great leaders will tell you how they hope the story will work out, and more than that, they’ll make it clear why your role is so important. “We can’t get there without you,” they tell you. “That’s why we called on you. We wrote your character into the story because we’re not sure we can make it without you. Help us write this story so that it ends well.”
That kind of initiation, you might guess, is uncommon and unusual. More often than not, instead of a story, you’re given a manual, whether real or metaphoric: here’s what you do and here’s how you do it. Great leaders don’t ignore the what and the how, but they add the why and the where: why it’s important and where it will get us. They are not just story tellers; they are story makers.