Telling Stories

Old vintage typewriter with blank paper

If you are a leader, whether you realize it or not, you are also a storyteller. And the cool thing is, you get to decide what kind of story you are going to tell. Yes, the facts are the facts, but they are rarely the most powerful part of the story.

 Say you’ve had a challenging week, or several challenging weeks, for reasons that are totally outside your control. Those are the facts. What story are you going to tell? Is it a story about the unfairness of the situation, your sense of aggravation with the people or factors that have resulted in this predicament, your sense of helplessness in the face of the challenges before you? Wow, that’s a depressing story. One that is likely to suck the energy, the sense of power and possibility, right out of you and those you lead. Looks like this story went from bad to worse, looming larger with each telling.

 Or … You could tell a story that acknowledges the challenging facts of the situation, and expresses gratitude that your team has the skills, creativity and can-do spirit to figure out a solution. It could be a story that outlines the hard truth, and also highlights the gifts and graces of your team to uniquely and effectively respond to that truth. I’m not suggesting you tell your people the path will be quick or easy if that’s not the case — your team deserves more than fairy tales from their leader. I am suggesting that you plot out the character(istic)s that will allow the story to have a satisfactory/positive/mission-fulfilling end. Maybe one of your team members has the deep sense of empathy and compassion to support others as they walk through a difficult situation. Maybe another has the ability to see possible solutions when others only see road blocks. A third might have relationships that can connect the dots to move you forward. You see, the facts are merely the backdrop. Your team, and your confidence in them, is the storyline!

 So which storyline is playing in your head? The facts may be presented to you, but you are the author of your team’s story. You get to decide. Is it going to be a soap opera, a tragedy, or a story of triumph even in the midst of steep odds? If you don’t believe the storyline, your “listeners” won’t either. The situation, those things you can’t control, isn’t the story. How you and your team respond is. Sure there will be times when the sky looks dark and you’re not sure what the next chapter will bring. As a colleague pointed out to me earlier this week, sometimes you just have to walk through it … very true. Do you believe that the good guys will prevail? Then take heart.

 You’re the leader, the author … You get to tell the story.

Gift Wrapping

Female hands in winter gloves with christmas gift box

As much as I’m a fan of nicely wrapped Christmas presents, I also recognize that the outer wrapping has little bearing on the real gift inside. As noted in the children’s sermon at church last Sunday, what I consider to be the greatest gift ever — the Christ child — came wrapped in what could be compared to tattered brown paper. No flashy ribbons or bows. No indication of status and majesty. No special privileges or expectations.

It is easy to get caught up in the trappings of leadership, and how others think the “package” should look. I’m guessing we’ve all been guilty from time to time of wrapping ourselves in a shiny coat of “fake it till you make it,” while feeling we were totally in over our heads. And while that might get you through in the short term, that is no way to lead for the long haul . . . a phony wrapper will only drag you down and minimize the gifts you bring to the table.

Being authentic, when that doesn’t match someone else’s idea of what a leadership package should look like, can be a hard thing to do. But guess what? Leaders come in all shapes and sizes, with a variety of dispositions and styles, and trying to wrap yourself up to look like a “should” (you know . . . you should be more reserved . . . you should be more decisive . . . or analytical . . . or outgoing . . .) discounts your unique perspectives and abilities. You weren’t chosen for a leadership role because your package looked just like everyone else’s (how boring would that be?!?) You may complement other packages, sure, or maybe your gifts coordinate with an overall strategy, but here’s the bottom line: You will never reach your leadership potential by trying to be something you are not, and putting a pretty bow on the box isn’t going to fool anyone.

When I hear industry experts talk about the impending “leadership crisis,” with predictions that there just won’t be enough people willing to take on leadership roles, it occurs to me that maybe we need to be willing to accept a package that looks a little different that the one we have come to associate with “leadership.”   Does it really matter if the gift comes wrapped in rumpled newspaper or covered with glitter and curly ribbon? It is the gifts and graces inside the package that will make all the difference.

As we approach a new year, my challenge to you is to look past the color-coordinated shiny paper and bows. Maybe, just maybe, the present you need can be found inside a brown paper wrapper.

The Thing About Talents . . .

old Bible of 19 centuries. . . I’m not talking about skills here, I’m talking about the ancient monetary unit referenced in the Bible — that thing that various servants either multiplied or held on to tightly for fear of losing it. Now I will never profess to be a master theologian, however I take my responsibility as the steward of a faith-based human service organization very seriously, and do my best to ensure my organization honors the teachings of what I believe to be, hands down, the best leadership book ever written.

As I interpret the Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25: 14 – 30), we are expected to multiply that which we are given. Many people know the portion of the scripture that says “Well done, good and faithful servant,” however they tend to leave off the remainder of that verse which says “You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your Master.” (Matthew 24:21)

Now, I absolutely believe God will provide if we’re following his will; however, as indicated in this scripture, I also believe he expects us to do our part. What, exactly does that mean? As far as I’m concerned, that means if we are holding ourselves out as a faith-based organization, we ought to be doing it better than anyone else. We need to be tracking outcomes. We need to have a quality improvement plan (that we actually implement, not just create to check a box!). We need a corporate compliance plan. We need financial metrics. Not because some external body says we have to, but because it’s a stewardship responsibility.

Yes, I know, budgets are tight, staffing is thin, and you’d rather focus your energies on serving more people and not on doing paper work. The problem is, I just don’t buy that argument.  How do you know if you’re having the greatest possible impact if you have no measures of success? (And numbers served isn’t enough. Serving a lot of people who don’t get better really doesn’t achieve your mission, does it?) Absolutely, the scale of your quality assurance efforts should match the size of your organization. The dashboard of a $200,000 organization is going to look much different that of a $20 million organization, but there is real truth in the adage “that which gets measured gets done.”

I thought we measured a lot of things (which in fact we do), however at our most recent EAGLE Accreditation visit, we were challenged to stretch our thinking. EAGLE is the only comprehensive accreditation program for faith-based human service organizations (, and the team leader for our review observed that while we have a comprehensive quality improvement program, which includes lots of measures, we weren’t measuring what difference it makes that we’re a faith-based organization.  That would seem like an obvious thing to measure, huh?!?

I absolutely believe that our kids get better faster and our staff retention is higher because we are a faith-based organization, but in fact I have nothing more than anecdotal stories to validate that belief. Now it is true that the impact of being faith-based is a harder thing to measure than, say, unit costs, but I’ve also never accepted “hard” as a reason not to do something.

As we (and by we, I mean our Director of Operations) began to search for a way to measure the impact of faith, we came across the Daily Spiritual Experiences Scale, ( ) which is highly validated and we determined would be a good fit for our needs. We have done the baseline measure for our staff, and plan to roll it out for kids and families in the near future.  Given that our staff retention numbers far exceed the industry averages, as do our baseline staff scores on the DSES, I think my theory related to staff will prove to be correct, however truth be told it is really too early to know for sure.  And if the numbers don’t turn out the way I expect them to? Well then, we’ll have an opportunity to learn . . . and improve . . . and find new ways to multiply our talents to the honor of our mission and Him who calls us to be good and faithful servants.

What are you doing with your talents?