Narrative Leadership

Finding value in the story of your work.

Hank Fortener, founder of Adopt Together, believes that all successful leadership is “narrative.” When you talk to your team about where they fit in the organization, its accomplishments and the people they serve every day, you are helping them connect value to the organization and find meaning in their work.
I think the stories that a leader tells is what tells people who follow that leader that it's working or that it's possible. I think only in story . . . I joke sometimes about communication. Sometimes you watch a movie and it says, "Based on a true story." I hate when they tell me that in the beginning, because it's cheating. Now I watch that movie and it's like, "Oh, this really happened, so whatever."

But every movie that is an award-winning movie is a true story, even if the events aren't true, because it has to be true to what I'm looking for as a human being. It has to be true to what I'm connected to as a person. It has to be true to what my soul longs for as an individual. If I'm an accountant, if I'm an engineer, if I'm a volunteer for something, it has to be true to what I'm looking for as a human being.

So every story, every Braveheart movie, every award-winning, Oscar winning film is because it was a true story to who I am as a human. Sometimes movies cheat because they go, "I told you the actual events," and it's based on actual events. Then that's supposed to make me go, "Oh okay, then I guess this is supposed to be inspiring for me."

I think what leaders miss sometimes is, "If I tell you what happened, you'll be inspired." In reality, what you have to do is you have to access the thing that is true about me as a person and then connect that to the true events that happened for us as a team. What did our work accomplish in the true parts of life? What meaning did we bring to the world? What purpose did we bring to the world? What action did we take? What thing did we work really hard for, that had a measurable outcome? And if you can't fit that into the context of a story, you've got to go backwards as the leader and take a long pause and do the work of going, "How does our work affect a person at the most basic human levels?"

Because at the end of the day, people don't want to work until they die, and just go, "What did I do? I was a great employee." They don't go, "What did you do with your life?" "Well, I got all those projects done." They're not going to say those things. The value that they're going to take by working at any level of any organization is they're going to take away that sense that what they did mattered to human beings, and that's where that human story always has to be a part of it.

So when you use words like narrative leadership, I go, "Yeah, to me all leadership is narrative." You are telling them where they fit in the story of the organization, where they fit in the story of what you're accomplishing, and where they fit in the story of the lives they're going to impact.

Hank Fortener

Hank Fortener is the founder of Adopt Together, a non-profit, crowdfunding platform that bridges the gap between families who want to adopt and the children who need loving homes. He is also Pastor at MOSAIC in Los Angeles and is the ...

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