How Your Story Drives Your Impact

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When some of us think of leaders, we imagine the Richard Bransons, Gloria Steinems, Dan Prices, and Patriss Cullors of the world guiding big companies and grand movements.

If your frame of a leader is an ambitious extrovert driven by power and domination and big audacious change, then, you might not view yourself as a leader.

But Howard Gardner’s research and conclusions suggest that even if you’re more introverted and creatively driven by the craft of a good story you may have the makings of a leader and you might already be leading.

Howard Gardner is Co-Director of Project Zero (devoted to advancing arts learning as a serious cognitive activity) at the Harvard Graduate School of Education – and is best known as a thought leader in multiple intelligences. Gardner changed the way I thought about intelligence and education back in the ‘90s with his books on multiple intelligences, the mind, and creativity. In his book Intelligence Reframed (Basic Books 1999), Gardner sums up his studies of creators and his studies of leaders. What surprised him was how much they have in common.

Leaders change the way numerous people think and act. That’s what influence is – that fundamental change. The most effective and wise leaders, Gardner notes, effect change via story in a two-fold way.

One, they tell meaningful stories and, two, they embody “those stories in their own lives.” Think about that. If you’re a business owner or service provider, a creative professional or team leader, you might be shaping a story about why your idea or service or company matters. The second part, though, is crucial. It reflects back on who you – your habits, your decisions, the very fibre of your character.

Does that sound like what you seek in the people you follow and trust? That synch up between the story a leader tells and the story a leader lives is the integrity – though not perfection – many of us crave.

“The art of the leader,” Gardner notes, “is to create and refine a story so that it engages the attention and commitment of followers, thereby changing their views of who they are, what they are committed to, and what they want to achieve and why.”

You can see where creators overlap. What Gardner describes closely reflects what I call Story Leaders. A story leader is a thought leader and conversation leader who tunes into the existing stories, narratives, and cultural conversations relevant to the field. But mostly a story leader is so attuned both to her own ideas and concepts as well as the current Zeitgeists that she is more interested in telling a new Story about a subject or about the field itself for these times.

Where many business leaders & business artists fall short is in their inability to tell the Story of why their business matters – to their customer communities as well as to their teams – now.

You can approach your whole business and brand through the lens of story and gain exponential impact – and enjoy the process.

Think of it this way:

Content is a leader’s vehicle. Story, the engine. Integrity, the fuel.

What kind of intelligences do leaders possess?

Here’s how Gardner sums them up:

  • gifted in language
  • strong interpersonal skills in that they understand other people’s fears and aspirations
  • keen self-awareness of their own strengths, limitations, and goals
  • self-reflective

How many of those qualities do you possess? Of those you don’t, do you want to?

And then this:

“Finally, the most effective leaders are able to address existential questions: They help audiences understand their own life situations, clarify their goals, and feel engaged in a meaningful quest.”

If you have influence over any group – that is, if you are a writer, a team leader, an agency leader, a teacher, a coach, anyone with clients or customers or a community – consider if that is what you do or want to do.

Essentially, whether leaders or creators lead directly or indirectly, they both wield this kind of influence. How? Through the work they make. The Work. That work changes how people view the world and their place in it.

The other interesting overlap Gardner found is this: Both leaders and creators often challenge conventional ideas and challenge other people in authority. That questioning, frankly, is what keeps us as a species alive, engaged, and in integrity.

then there’s wisdom

Gardner’s research keeps bravely pointing to the relationships between intelligences and morality, for Gardner wants leaders to have a moral compass imbued not with a rigid ideology so much as with wisdom.

What we want are leaders who are both effective and wise. Wisdom comes from having had and reflected upon experiences, from learning from those experiences, and knowing how to move forward. To have such integrity and to be able to tell a coherent narrative of one’s life turns out to be a key trait among another business consultant’s research on top company leaders’ character.

The wise leader’s speech and the wise creator’s makings can speak to diverse people at just the right time in just the right way at profoundly deep levels.

These stories, I think, we crave. These leaders and creators, I think, we deserve.

How to Build & Align Your Leadership Intelligence

1.) Name & Frame the Common Aspiration.

One client asked his team to start having team meetings every Tuesday morning, but many team members resisted. When I asked him why he was holding Tuesday morning meetings, he said because there were big communication gaps on roles and priorities. When I asked him why any of what the team accomplishes matters to him or them or their customers, he paused.

“I’ll ask again: Why does any of what you and your company do matter? How is this improved communication and project execution and productivity and potential profit going to make a difference in anyone’s lives?” I could tell he hated the question at first, but then he said it (changed so as not to betray client confidentiality): What they are creating will give parents peace of mind for toddler safety in homes. “How does that feel,” I asked, “to be a father knowing you’re protecting your child?” A father of two boys, he got it.

That led to us identifying a common aspiration – to protect the vulnerable. He smiled. He got it. We then discussed how to open the next meeting. He asked his team members to write down and then tell a story about a time they felt protected as a child.  The responses were pretty moving. Surprising to the leader. And then he said in essence, “That is why it’s important for us to know our roles and get this project executed. We all want to do our small part in protecting the vulnerable.”

That simple act helped him exhibit numerous multiple intelligences Gardner identifies.

2.) Live it.

To live the story you lead doesn’t mean you have to be an ethical paragon. It does mean you have enough self-awareness to see how your daily actions, interactions, demeanor, and decisions influence other people. For this client, that meant he started watching out for who on his team actually might be vulnerable in some ways and how he could empower – more than protect – her or him.

That slight shift in awareness and action gave him a leadership edge that drove him to keep getting better at what he does and how he does it.

Align your ideals with your actions and your message and how you dispense that message – via platform book or brand or service or product – and you likely embody numerous leadership intelligences as an aligned thought leader.


Thank you for running with me,


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