What Storytelling Reveals As The Role Leaders Should Play

A revealing look at three stories that help to illustrate how the function of leaders is to serve as mentors for the real heroes of their organization – their employees.

A few weeks ago, I wrote a piece about 3 fundamental storytelling elements leaders should employ to successfully drive change.

Now when it comes to using storytelling to help describe our vision or change initiative, the common tendency is to frame our story within the hero on a quest narrative, given how it’s the decisions and choices we make through our leadership that ultimately impact whether we collectively succeed or fail.

And yet, the truth is that while we may be the source of the vision or change initiative that guides our collective efforts, the actual role we play as leaders in our organization’s story is not that of the hero, but that of the mentor.

To understand why the role of mentor is the proper fit for leaders in terms of the journey your organization needs to take, let’s start off by looking at the three characteristics that define what a mentor does:

1. Mentors act as our teacher and guide
The most common role mentors play is that of a teacher and guide; that they use their own experiences and insights to help others learn about themselves and find the path they are meant to take to achieve a sense of meaning and purpose in their lives.

2. Mentors serve as both our cheerleader and our challenger
Mentors will often cheer us on – inspiring us to keep pushing ahead, and eager to celebrate our successes. But mentors also challenge us to question our assumptions of what we’re capable of and what we can achieve.

3. The mentoring relationship has a fixed end point
There’s a clear end point in the relationship between the mentor and the mentee. Specifically, that once the mentor has provided their mentee with all the help and guidance they can provide, it’s time for the mentee to use their acquired knowledge and insights to continue their journey on their own.

Taken together, these three characteristics illustrate what Christopher Vogler wrote in his book, “The Writer’s Journey”:

“Mentors provide heroes with motivation, inspiration, guidance, training, and gifts for the journey. Every hero is guided by something, and a story without some acknowledgement of this energy is incomplete.”

Interestingly, Vogler’s description of the role mentors play in storytelling mirrors the function of effective leadership. Namely, that it’s a leader’s responsibility to craft a vision that inspires people to commit their best efforts, as well as providing our employees with the support and guidance to help make that vision a reality.

Of course, when it comes to storytelling, it’s easy for us to imagine ourselves being the heroes of our organization’s story thanks to our leadership role. And yet, the simple truth is that as leaders, we serve as the mentor to the real heroes of our organization’s story – our employees [Twitter logoShare on Twitter].

With that in mind, I’d like to share stories from three different movies that help shine a light on how we can serve as mentors through our leadership to bring out the best in those we lead:

1. Our vision should help employees see the value of what they’re undertaking
In the movie “Field of Dreams”, farmer Ray Kinsella has a vision that compels him to build a baseball field in his cornfield. A year after building a baseball field that puts his family into dire financial straits, the ghosts of baseball players from the early 1900s appear on the field to once again play the game they love. The catch – only Ray, his family, and writer Terence Mann can see these ghosts.

That’s why Ray’s brother-in-law Mark sees the baseball field as a waste of money and the reason why Ray is at risk of losing his farm. Mark tries to persuade Ray to sell him his farm so that Ray and his family can keep living there. But as Ray struggles with what to do next, Terence tells Ray that “people will come”.

Terence then goes on to paint a vision for what’s to come – of how people will gladly pay to visit the ballpark so that they can reconnect with that sense of magic and joy they felt as children watching their heroes play baseball.

While Mark tries to warn Ray that he will lose everything, Terence holds his ground telling Ray that his baseball field is a reminder of all that was good in their country and what it could be again.

What this scene illustrates is how in this capacity of being the mentor in their organization’s story, leaders can help their employees to understand the importance of what they’re undertaking; of how they can see past the obstacles of today and envision that better future we can create together.

In other words, we need to guide our employees down the path that will allow them to achieve their full potential [Twitter logoShare on Twitter]; that they see that we believe in what they can become which is why we want them to go on this journey with us.

2. Encourage employees to be true to themselves and to what drives them to succeed
The first film in the Star Trek reboot series opens up with a scene where Kirk’s father has to sacrifice his life in order to save his wife and his newborn son, along with the lives of his fellow crewmates. But rather than feeling like the son of a hero, the death of his father has left Kirk wallowing in self-pity and starting bar fights with random Starfleet personnel.

After getting into yet another bar fight, Captain Pike walks in and puts an end to the brawl. While Kirk nurses his wounds, Pike admits to Kirk that he’s looked at his file and found out that Kirk is actually quite gifted and encourages him to join Starfleet, telling Kirk he has the potential to become a Starfleet Captain.

When Kirk dismisses Pike’s idea of what his future could be, Pike gets up and leaves Kirk with this challenge: “Your father was Captain of a Starship for 12 minutes. He saved 800 lives, including your mother’s and yours. I dare you to do better.”

Now at this point in his life, Kirk has been used to feeling like he’s unworthy of his father’s legacy, as well as being told that he won’t amount to anything. By offering up this challenge, Pike shows Kirk that he believes in his potential; that Kirk is capable of great things and that perhaps deep down, Kirk knows this as well.

And this is what leaders need to do as the mentor in their organization’s story – it’s our job as leaders to challenge our employees to be true to who they were meant to be [Twitter logoShare on Twitter]; to tap into that internal drive that exists in each of them to succeed, and encourage them to take hold of it and do something with it.

3. Create conditions that allow employees to thrive even after we leave
As a father of three daughters, I used to watch a lot of family films as part of our bonding time. Of the many films that I enjoyed watching with my girls, there’s one that offers a great lesson on how we can be the mentor to our employees in our shared story, and that movie is “Nanny McPhee”.

“Nanny McPhee” in many ways is a modern-take on “Mary Poppins” as it’s also about a nanny with magical powers that arrives to help a family in need. The twist with Nanny McPhee, though, is that unlike Mary Poppins, Nanny McPhee is a rather dour, unattractive woman whose appearance slowly transforms as the children learn various lessons about how to be that better version of who they can be.

Over the course of the film, the children evolve from being these undisciplined, disrespectful children into kind and caring ones. And that transformation also impacts their relationship with Nanny McPhee from one where they despise her, to one defined by love and friendship.

Of course, once the children have learned their various lessons, Nanny McPhee tells the children she has to leave, reminding them of the agreement she made with them at the start: “when you need me but do not want me, then I must stay. When you want me but no longer need me, then I have to go.”

In many ways, this simple turn of phrase reflects the very dynamic of how leaders serve in a mentorship role for their employees – our job is not to make our employees dependent on us, but to find the internal means to thrive [Twitter logoShare on Twitter].

In each of these examples, one thing that is clearly missing is that hero-leader figure – the character who rises up to meet the impending obstacle and ultimately defeats it, earning the appreciation and gratitude of those who benefited from their actions. It’s an alluring role, but frankly, it’s not the one your employees need you to play.

On the contrary, what they need is a leader who emulates the actions described above – ones where our focus is on inspiring the best in those we lead because we believe in them, while also providing them with the support and guidance to transform what they could be into reality. Not just for the benefit of our employees, but also for the shared purpose that binds our collective efforts together.

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Tanveer Naseer is an award-winning and internationally-acclaimed leadership writer and keynote speaker. He is also the Principal and Founder of Tanveer Naseer Leadership, a leadership coaching firm that works with executives and managers to help them develop practical leadership and team-building competencies to guide organizational growth and development. Tanveer’s writings and insights on leadership and workplace interactions have been featured in a number of prominent media and organization publications, including Forbes, Fast Company, Inc Magazine, Canada’s national newspaper “The Globe and Mail”, The Economist Executive Education Navigator, and the Ritz-Carlton Leadership Center.

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