Todd McKinnon, CEO of Okta, recently contributed an article, Learning to Flex Your Leadership Muscles, to FastCompany’s Co.LEAD. In it, McKinnon shares some personal lessons he’s learned about the differences between managing and leading. In the section, ‘What’s Your Story?’ he focuses on communication differences, emphasizing that in order to lead, one must tell stories. To echo his sentiments, and perhaps add a bit of my own to them, I believe stories are powerful because they draw people in and engage them on an emotional level. Storytelling skills are closely linked with charisma, and charismatic people attract devoted followers. A strong leader, particularly a visionary leader, has the ability to paint a picture of a future, and not just any future – but, a future people want to be part of. Thinking in terms of a software start-up, a leader has to convey not only where a product can go and how that will benefit the market, but how putting in a lot of hard work to help reach that future mark will benefit those that will be instrumental in moving the company or product there.
There is an ethical space between narrative and leadership that is often neglected, though, and it’s this space I want to talk about. It’s here where a leader’s character must align with his or her narrative, or he or she risks losing credibility. Having worked in more than one toxic organization, I can say first hand that once a leader loses credibility, it is next to impossible to get it back. Employees may stick around for a while, especially if the job market is rough, but they won’t work as hard and the quality of their work will decline. It’s all too easy for a company to land in a place where a disgruntled employee ends up with a louder voice than the charismatic leader whose actions don’t match his or her message.
In the 2003 book by James Kouzes and Barry Posner, Credibility, the authors examine this concept at length. They propose six disciplines of credibility: 1) Discovering Yourself, 2) Appreciating Constituents and Their Diversity, 3) Affirming Shared Values, 4) Developing Capacity, 5) Serving a Purpose, and 6) Sustaining Hope. While these disciplines are fairly self-explanatory, I believe that credibility can’t be authentically created and sustained without a high level of self-awareness, which is what Discovering Yourself is all about. It’s the piece that must be there for the others to follow.
I also believe too many leaders today have lost touch with themselves. To say that leaders have “lost touch with themselves” implies that at one time they were in touch with themselves, and I think this is generally true. However, discovering yourself – defining your values, being intentional in how you communicate them, through both words and actions, converting your values into behavioral and strategic guidelines for your business – none of these things is a one-time event, and this is where some leaders lose a step now and then. They get bogged down in the details, or become too enamored with their own philosophies and strategies to see the problems in them, or the struggles those around them undergo.
At its core, credibility is about whether people believe you or not. So, while storytelling is an important skill, it’s even more important that the stories leaders tell be authentic, and to be authentic, they must be stories that are shaped and shared with the rest of the organization. The story may start with the leader, and it may propose a desired ending, but to be successful, leaders cannot write the ending themselves. The story only evolves when others contribute to it, and when that collaboration is authentic, it lives on to spawn new stories that sustain a company and drive it towards excellence.