The Leader’s Guide to Storytelling: A book review by Bob Morris

Leader's Guide StorytellingThe Leader’s Guide to Storytelling: Mastering the Art and Discipline of Business Narrative (Second Edition)
Stephen Denning
Jossey-Bass (2011)

Certain to Become a “Business Classic”

Those who have read Denning’s The Springboard and/or Squirrel Inc. already know that he specializes in knowledge management and organizational storytelling. In this volume, he develops his core concepts in much greater depth, acknowledging his high regard for Peter Senge’s vision of the Total Learning Organization as delineated in his pioneer volume, The Fifth Discipline. Briefly, in it Senge suggests that there are five separate but interrelated “disciplines”: building a Shared Vision which enables an organization to build a common commitment to the same long-term goals; formulating Mental Models which guide, inform, and sustain creativity and innovation; encouraging and supporting Team Learning; Personal Mastery of certain skills which enable an individual to learn and understand more and thus perform at a higher level of competence; and finally, Systems Thinking which establishes a holistic view, both of one’s organization and of the marketplace in which it pursues success.

In his Introduction to this book, Denning asserts that “the best way to communicate with people you are trying to lead is very often through a story. The impulse here is practical and pedagogical. [The Leader’s Guide to Storytelling] shows how to use storytelling to deal with the most difficult challenges faced by leadership today.” Denning wholly agrees with Senge that a learning organization is an environment “where new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured, where collective aspiration is set free, and where people are continually learning how to learn together.” However, while agreeing on the importance of “systems thinking” as a way of looking at systems as a whole that will enable people to see complex chains of causation and so solve complex problems, Denning has three concerns which he shares on page 253. By the time his reader arrives at that point in the narrative, she or he may well share the same concerns.

My purpose in this brief commentary is to focus on what I consider to be Denning’s key points as he explains why and how storytelling is often the best way for leaders to communicate with those whom they are trying to lead. What he offers is a cohesive and comprehensive system. These are the core principles, as discussed thoroughly in Chapters 3-10:

1. Select and then tell the story which is most appropriate for the given leadership challenge.

2. Tell that story with style, truth, thorough preparation, and effective delivery.

3. Select a narrative pattern based on the primary objective: to motivate others to action, to build trust in you, to build trust in your organization, to transmit your values, to get others working together, to share knowledge, to “tame the grapevine,” or to create and share your vision.

Each reader will appreciate Table 1.1. (on page 18) which summarizes key points for each of the eight different narrative patterns discussed separately in Chapters, 3-10. (Additional Tables are provided later in the narrative whenever appropriate.) At the end of each chapter in Part Two, Denning thoughtfully includes a “Template” which poses a set of questions to be addressed when, for example, crafting a “springboard story.” Here’s the first of ten questions: “What is the specific change in the organization or community or group that you hope to spark with the story?” Then in Part Three (Chapters 11 and 12), Denning explains how to put it all together by using narrative effectively, both to transform an organization and to become an interactive leader.

Of special interest to me Denning’s discussion (in the final chapter) of what he calls “Interactive, Tolstoyean” leadership and its relation to other theories in terms of leadership as a trait, as a skill, as a style, as situational, as motivation, and as transformation. This discussion serves as an appropriate conclusion to his book, one in which Denning has spelled out “specific, identifiable, measurable, trainable behaviors that can be used to achieve the goals of transformational leadership.”

Storytelling really is a performance art. Some master the requisite skills. Most don’t. Denning offers no guarantees but does claim that those who consistently use the narrative tools he has provided will acquire new capabilities. Specifically, to communicate more effectively who they are and what they stand for, to be more attentive to the world as it is now, to speak the truth and do it well, to make their values explicit and take actions which are consistent with those values, to listen to the world and be receptive to innovation. Those who possess these new capabilities will attract the interest, then earn and sustain the trust and respect of those whom they may be privileged to lead.

If this is the kind of leader you aspire to be, Denning’s book awaits you…eager to be of substantial assistance.

For whatever reasons, only in recent years has there been an awareness and appreciation of the importance of the business narrative. Those who share my high regard for this book are urged to check out Annette Simmons’ The Story Factor, Doug Lipman’s Improving Your Storytelling, and Storytelling in Organizations co-authored by John Seely Brown, Denning, Katarina Groh, and Laurence Prusak.


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