The role of storytelling in good leadership

Alicia Kirk, Westpac Scholar, 2020 Future Leader

Written by Alicia Kirk, Westpac Scholar, 2020 Future Leader


We were to stay in the former quarantine station by the water in Manly. Some say it is haunted by ghosts. In the least, it is haunted by history: heritage buildings, memorials, and the old mint green disinfecting shower blocks. For a week, we would be given time to reflect upon and discuss what leadership might look like in our future. What makes a good leader? Am I a leader? Could I be? Can we be? 


Perhaps in light of the current pandemic, the experience was a little uncanny: standing in the shadow of the quarantine of the past as it returned to the present.  


Since having left this February residential, part of the Westpac Scholars Leadership Development Program, I’ve continued to question what we need from good leadership, especially in times of crisis which we are bound to face time and again. I have many other questions too. But I want to share one thing I took away from the residential: the role of storytelling in good leadership. 


By storytelling I mean the way we recount events in our lives and the development of things, how we represent the facts of a matter, and how we invite people to share our vision of the future. There are two pertinent questions. What story do we tell ourselves? What story do we tell others?  


The first question requires us to look inward, to recognize, articulate, and bolster our personal strengths as well as areas of improvement. When I walk into a room, who do I tell myself that I am? Am I a leader? I tried it out. When I walked into a room with a leadership mindset, I stop focusing on myself. My concern turned to everyone else. We all have the potential to be leaders, not in the sense of world domination, but simply in the example we set with every interaction—keeping in mind 1.5m distance is currently advised.  


The second question requires us to look outward. We tell a story in the way we stand, the way we speak, and what we say. Thinking outward, I need to ask, what does my audience need from me? Calm in a time of panic? Compassion in a time of fear? Strategy in a time of chaos? Clarity, honesty, understanding? The way we tell the story can unite a cacophony into a choir. Whether it be a press conference, pitch, or post to an internet of followers, whether it be a meeting, team huddle, or conversation, and whether they need enthusiasm, quick facts, or the big picture, I will tell the story for them. 


I didn’t spend the week in the old quarantine station alone—no, no apparitions. I was with the other Westpac Future Leaders Scholars, with academic, industry and community thought leaders. I left the residential program with many questions, a slight weight of expectation, and inspired by the people I had met. Leadership is not about one person. Just like the brain has many cells, leadership arises with the sparks between many people joined in a network coordinating to take the next step forward. To tell a story well invites everyone to join the journey, the dance, the fight, or something in between. After all, a compelling story is hard to quarantine. 


Published 23 March 2020

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