Leadership Library Review — Story Mastery: Leading with Inspiration

July 2019

“Story Mastery: Leading with Inspiration” in Leadership from the Inside Out by Kevin Cashman (Berrett-Koehler, rev. 2017)

What are the big take-aways?

This leadership handbook has been a favorite of mine since the 2008 edition, and now I am reviewing a new chapter that appears in the latest revision from 2017, entitled “Story Mastery: Leading with Inspiration.”  On page 46, Cashman writes:

While spreadsheets are the language of management information, stories are the language of leadership inspiration [author’s emphasis]. Stories can activate our deepest, best selves; they are certainly one of the most transformative of all leadership tools.  Powerful narratives can bridge the authentic, essential depth of a leader to the complex breadth of strategy, culture, values and purpose.  The best stories are like concentrated, potent mantras that resonate with our shared humanity and enliven our collective aspirations.

I agree with him when he says we under-emphasize effective, genuine, relevant story-telling as a vital leadership development tool.

Why do I like it?

The “Story Mastery” chapter does a nice job of comprehensively yet succinctly addressing the ancient role of story-telling in human history, what elements make a story engaging (think: Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey”), and the brain science of narrative (apparently character-driven stories about overcoming challenges produce oxytocin), all elucidated by two examples of CEO keynotes and why one fell flat whereas the other brought the audience into a state of collective emotional transcendence.  I liked Cashman’s quotation of consultant Annette Simmons: “People do not want information.  They are up to their eyeballs in information.  They want faith – faith in you, your goals, your success, in the story you tell” (p. 47).

In what situations would this be useful?

While this chapter is only an introduction to the power of narrative, it should get the attention of any leader who is not already intentional about telling her authentic story, the organization’s, and where they intersect in ways that will be relatable to different stakeholder groups. In addition to presenting “story mastery dynamics” and a good list of “six practices for inspiring stories,” Cashman describes a free online StoryLine exercise at CashmanLeadership.com that you can use to help to elevate your self-awareness to a greater level of understanding “Where do my strengths and development areas come from? How did I acquire these strengths? Where did I form these values? Why are some challenges particularly difficult for me?” [p. 65, author’s emphasis].

Importantly, “Story Mastery: Leading with Inspiration” also covers the “five shadows of destructive stories” (pp. 68-69), describing how certain kinds of narratives can not only be less effective or enduring than others but actually be harmful and create long-term damage.  These types of stories are those that: diminish, discount or exclude groups of people; prescribe only one way of being, behaving or seeing the world; are designed to make us look good (“[s]tories designed to impress are typically not very impressive” [author’s emphasis]); are emotionally detached and/or inauthentic; and stories that misrepresent, in order to secure gain or avoid pain.

What other resources might “pair” well with it?

You can find the StoryLine exercise here.

A masterful story-teller herself, Brene Brown (who is cited by Cashman a couple of times in the chapter) writes practically and persuasively about the power of narrative. Her most recent book for leaders is Dare to Lead: Daring Greatly and Rising Strong at Work, reviewed here in the Leadership Library.

For another wonderful leadership handbook that emphasizes values, story-telling and purpose, see Bill George et al.’s True North Fieldbook: A Personal Guide to Becoming an Authentic Leader, reviewed here in the Leadership Library.

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