Understanding The Power Of Words, Images and Stories In Leadership

Richard Shrapnel's 'Understanding The Power Of Word, Images and Stories In Leadership'.

Words are powerful. They say a picture is worth a thousand words, and that a story is worth a thousand pictures – you do the sums. For every leader, the ability to effectively use words, images and stories is essential. But, more importantly, is to ensure that the wrong words are never used.


Active Knowledge Question:

How do you ensure that you and your leadership team only use words that uplift and empower and not words that block and undermine the performance of your business?


The Role Of Leaders

I believe there are four words that define the role of leaders. They are: direct, align, motivate and inspire. All four of these tasks are interdependent, and one cannot be achieved without the other three. Note that exercising authority is not one of them.

Worthy leaders recognise and understand the physics of leadership. These physics tell us that businesses are a community of people. Communities seek out and are drawn to leaders. This dynamic is best described as centripetal leadership, with everyone looking inwards to their leader for guidance and inspiration.

The old pyramid leadership model with its layers of leaders stacked on top of the workers and passing their orders down the line – exercising their authority – is one of the past and does little to enable the competitiveness of any business.

In today’s connected world, where models of chaos and quantum physics are being studied to understand how communities interact and respond, centripetal leadership is a simple and effective way of viewing influence. Leadership is – in its simplest form – influence, and the stronger your leadership, the stronger your influence.

As a worthy leader, I need to:

  • Communicate and hold the direction for the business in leading it forward in success consistent with its purpose.
  • Align all the people, resources, systems, and processes in the business to bring about a single focus and momentum behind the direction set.
  • Motivate everyone to contribute their utmost to the business’s purpose and success.
  • Inspire everyone to pursue the vision cast and, in doing so, remove all the barriers to their participation.

The words that I, and my leadership team, use every day, the stories we tell, and the images we craft are vital in delivering on this role. They are the key tools of our trade as leaders. They are powerful and can either build up and empower or pull down, block and disempower.

They must be used with caution and care, as sometimes the difference between the right words and the completely wrong words can be subtle.


The Right Words

Words have a power that we often do not recognise or appreciate. Here are some examples:

  • Tell someone that they are ‘hopeless’, and that belief may follow them for their entire life and curtail their ability to achieve their potential.
  • Walk out of your office and rant about a customer and how you have had enough of dealing with their complaints, and you have probably set the customer service standard for your entire business.
  • Express doubt about the competency of a colleague to others in the office, and you may well have undermined their ability to carry out their responsibilities.
  • Wake up in the morning with a dread of what the day may bring, and it likely will.

Words are not just spoken but also thought and written, with those that are written possibly being the most potent.

So, as a leader, you must choose your words very carefully, as what you say will craft the way everyone who hears you acts. Of course, this doesn’t just apply to what you say at public events but every word you ‘utter’ every moment of every day.

Your words should always uplift, reinforce and support. They should always be expressing what you should be doing and never recanting what not to do or mistakes or failings. You want your words to reinforce what should be done, not what should not be done.

Within centripetal leadership, everyone looks inward and towards you and you are always visible.


Crafting The Stories

The power of stories is not just the words that they contain but the images that they create. Think of any compelling story that you have read and you will find that as you took in the words, images and pictures came to mind of what the words were describing. This is why well-crafted stories are said to convey a thousand pictures.

Leaders can use well-crafted stories to convey many things, such as strategiessimple guiding principles and visions extremely well.

Storytelling is certainly an art and there are methods and approaches in developing and structuring your stories depending on the impact and message you are seeking to convey.

Stories normally have a time marker, a place marker, characters and names, events and outcomes (often unanticipated outcomes, which can drive the appeal of the story).

Stories can be intended to build connection, influence or clarify.

As a leader, a portfolio of stories which is regularly renewed is an important tool is achieving the outcomes you seek.

If you were to pause now, can you list out a variety of stories that you regularly tell? Most leaders do have stories but often do not recognise them as such. It’s important that you review your stories to ensure they contain the right words and images to deliver the outcomes you are intending.


Overwriting The Images

We all carry mental images of what we are capable of and what is well beyond us. These are images of who we are as people and are developed over a lifetime. They are not necessarily fixed, nor permanent, but certainly become ingrained over time. They form limits on what we will allow ourselves to do and achieve.

Achieving success in one’s life often requires a rewriting of the image we carry of ourselves. The challenge being that as these images are held in our subconscious we probably are not even aware of them. I can keep failing at a task because subconsciously it is not consistent with the image I hold of myself.

As a leader, this can impact you individually but it can also impact your entire business. You will find that those who work within and with your business, will hold an image of your business and what it is capable of doing. If you were to set a vision which was not consistent with that image, you will find the business failing to deliver on it. Why? Because everyone knows it’s not meant to be, it’s not consistent with who the business is.

The answer to this barrier is to craft an image that is empowering of the task, challenge or vision you are going to undertake. And start overwriting whatever may be present with the new compelling story that creates this new image. Repetition, repetition and more repetition of this new story will overwrite whatever is present and allow you to step forward in achieving what you have set out to do.

As a leader you must always use the power of words to uplift, craft stories that communicate key messages, and create images that will lift the ceilings on any limits that may exist. These actions should just become part of who you are as a worthy leader.


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All the best in the success of your business,

Richard Shrapnel