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Why Having a Clear Leadership Narrative is Important

Why Having a Clear Leadership Narrative is Important

Story Highlights

  • Learn the power of a clear leadership narrative to inspire, enthuse and move people to action
  • The narrative should explain the leader's vision and engage followers with effective communication
  • A good leader invites their managers and employees to shape and join the vision
  • Read our extensive guide on Effective Leadership: How to Be a Better Leader

One of the greatest inspirational speeches with a leadership narrative on record is the one Martin Luther King Jr. gave on Aug. 28, 1963, during the March on Washington -- the renowned "I Have a Dream" speech. The bottom line is his speech described his motivation, his vision and contained a call to action that galvanized a nation.

A little-known fact is that the "dream" part was almost excluded.

King included it in an early draft but was advised it was too hackneyed to use. But during the speech, his friend and legendary gospel singer Mahalia Jackson called out, "Tell them about the dream, Martin!" She understood, as she looked out over the 250,000 people gathered at the Lincoln Memorial, that Dr. King's dream was real, true, and able to motivate change in a way that no other rhetoric could.

She was right. And the rest is history.

Leaders can learn something from that historic moment: Gallup research shows that only 13% of U.S. employees strongly agree the leadership of their organization communicates effectively with the rest of the organization. Just 15% strongly agree the leadership of their organization makes them feel enthusiastic about the future. And only 34% are engaged.

Dr. King demonstrated just how powerful a strategic and specific narrative can be as it relates to motivating and engaging a greater population - an important lesson for leaders with implications for their employees.

In the workplace, this means communicating an important message to employees that connects their jobs to the greater purpose of your company.

Root Your Narrative in Your Leadership Strengths

A narrative has the power to inspire, enthuse and move people to action. It should define the leader's vision, explain the current reality, and describe the path forward while engaging and inspiring along the way. This is more than just off-the-cuff, spontaneous storytelling.

This is a crafted, clear, consistent strategic narrative you share in every discussion about vision and strategy, whether you're talking to your leadership team, meeting with analysts, being interviewed by journalists, conducting town halls, or coaching direct reports.

Our research also shows that when leadership makes employees enthusiastic about the future, seven in 10 are engaged at work. But when leaders don't, only one employee in 100 is engaged.

What those employees need from their leaders, Gallup research shows, is stability, compassion, trust and hope. Your narrative will be most inspiring if it builds on those four elements, but it must find its voice in who you truly are, what you believe in and why others should follow you. Your unique leadership strengths are the place to start. Dive into the moments, events, and tribulations that formed and shaped your unique identity. What you've learned is valuable to you and it will be to others, too. Knowing you is how people will come to trust your narrative.

Your strengths -- the ability to visualize the future, perhaps, or create discipline out of chaos -- are your most powerful asset. Use them.

Make Your Narrative Relevant

Your narrative should evolve with you and should resonate with your followers -- and three in four employees in the global workforce will be millennials by 2025. Communicating the strategic direction of the organization with PowerPoint slides packed full of EBITDA charts and debt-to-income ratios leaves a lot out of the story.

And that part of the story might be especially meaningful to young workers: Gallup research shows that only 26% of millennials say they have heard someone talk about how their work connects to the mission and purpose, and only 34% of millennials have heard a story about how their company impacted a customer to improve their business and life.

A narrative has the power to inspire, enthuse and move people to action. It should define the leader's vision, explain the current reality, and describe the path forward, while engaging and inspiring along the way.

Stories about experiences and personal discoveries are more likely to connect and resonate emotionally, and that's as important as EBITDA to workers. Leaders have enough data. They don't have enough insight.

Individualized Consideration: Crowdsource Your Narrative

Your narrative must include employees at all levels. Incorporating what others want from the organization -- their dreams, aspirations, ideas and opinions -- brings them along as you discuss the future.

Have managers ask questions that point toward the positive, ask them to go on a listening tour, or have them talk about the future. This will provide a broader context for your narrative, and you might learn something important. Best yet, people will more readily agree with the direction you're taking if they had a role in crafting it.

Deliver Your Message Daily, Not Just at Special Events

Crafting a compelling narrative is one thing but communicating and delivering it in an engaging and inspiring way is another. Leaders have long relied on town halls to get their message across. Organized with great fanfare in a room packed to capacity, town halls are exciting. But they are also episodic. A strong narrative requires consistent communication.

Taking your narrative on the road helps you experience the organization beyond the corporate office, and it'll help employees experience you. So, tell your stories. Ask others for theirs. But don't settle for old-fashioned audience participation. Make it clear that you want others to join in the narrative, not consume it.

And don't overlook remote employees. Gallup research on remote work shows that 43% of U.S. employees work off-site at least part of the time, and those who work remotely all the time can have lower engagement and feel disconnected from their teams. As collaborative technologies evolve, consider an omnichannel platform for your narrative -- text, email, intranet, chat, video and web-conferencing, or web-based bulletin boards.

You'll know the narrative is successful if it's clear and communicates what you expect from your listeners, is credible to employees at every level of your organization, and compels people to take action.

Create and Share Hope

No matter what channels you use, consistency is key -- for you and your direct reports. Still, your leaders need the freedom to personalize the message. A regurgitated narrative lacks appeal, but imbuing it with their own experiences and strengths will enrich the message.

Still, your narrative is most powerful when it comes from you. You have the most power to engage. The power to inspire future generations of leaders. The power to create hope.

Your strengths -- the ability to visualize the future, perhaps, or create discipline out of chaos -- are your most powerful asset. Use them.

The world needs hope. Just one in three employees in Gallup's global database strongly agree that they trust the leadership of their organization. And the world has tilted more negative. In 2019, Gallup's Negative Experience Index, which annually tracks people's experiences of stress, anger, sadness, physical pain and worry, tied the previous high of 30 found in 2017 -- the highest it's been since we started tracking in 2006.

These are challenging times -- fake news, bad news, downright-scary news is everywhere you look -- so being on point with your message and generating trust is vital. The late Dr. Shane Lopez, who worked extensively with Gallup on the subject of hope, said it best,

"Hope matters. Hope is a choice. Hope can be learned. Hope can be shared with others."

Share hope. Share your hope. If you want people to commit to you, you have a responsibility to explain why they should.

Inspiring hope is a leadership imperative and is becoming more important all the time. That's why Jackson told Dr. King to talk about his dream -- it offered listeners a reason to hope. It was great advice then and still is. Take it.

A leader's impact is immeasurable, learn how to inspire and engage employees to achieve greater impact:


Vibhas Ratanjee is Senior Practice Expert, Organizational and Leadership Development, at Gallup.

Jennifer Robison contributed to this article.

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