Combine Leadership, Visual Design, and Storytelling


As an employee, I can’t follow you if I don’t know where you are headed. Too often, leaders attempt to convey such information in ways that sound like they came straight from the Tower of Babel.

Try following this:

Stefnaokkareraðverabestur í heiminumogaðberjaallakeppinautaokkar, þannigaðbreytaþvíhvernigþúvinnur … allt í lagi?*

If I work for you, I want to know: what do you want me to think, feel, and do differently? Also, what will it look like when I achieve this type of performance?

Instead, leaders often deliver a jumble of words that have little or no meaning. These words are so abstract and far removed from an employee’s daily existence that he or she literally has no idea what to do differently.

I’d like to suggest that the straightest path from vision to action involves three steps:

First, you need visionary leadership. This produces vitally important decisions about where your organization is headed and how you plan to get there. But there’s a reason few people rise to top leadership positions. Visionary leadership in particular requires a unique blend of skills that most people don’t possess or can’t combine to apply: abstract thinking, focus, passion, persistence, and tenacity. The vision most leadership teams produce cannot be directly delivered to an entire organization; it will go right over most employees’ heads.

Second, you need visual design. Draw me a picture that shows where we are headed. Use such images to translate strategies into understandable reality. What does this strategy look like, when executed? Make each image clear enough that you can use it again and again, regardless of whether you are talking to the folks in Accounting, your Product Development team, or your Field Sales professionals. Then, use it repeatedly. This is vitally important. The value of a visual strategy is directly proportional to the number of times you use and share it to create invaluable discussions amongst diversity of thought. As you refine your strategy, refine your visual image(s). Any viable strategy in today’s business world needs to change as the environment around you changes.

Third, use storytelling. You are leading your team to a desired, often aspirational future state. Combine words and pictures to make that imaginary outcome feel real and relevant.

Share stories of empowerment. Collect personal observations and experiences and connect them to the journey on which you are asking your team to embark. Ask anyone where they were on 9/11, and they will tell you a story. Stories are what power our lives and provide context for our decisions, judgments, and beliefs.

Pull it together…

Any meaningful and successful organizational change must be first be communicated effectively. The intersection of leadership, visual design, and storytelling is where this happens most effectively. Skip one element—as most companies do—and you end up talking about change, but not actually leading change.

* That foreign-sounding example I used above was in Icelandic. It said, “Our strategy is to be the best in the world and to beat all our competitors, so change the way you work… okay?”

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