The Power of Storytelling in Leadership - Pearlena Rebecca Bharathkumar

on November 16, 2023

‘Passion with a purpose’. This has been my drive for the past 20 years.

With almost 10 years in the automotive industry, my passion for women in leadership roles has now led me to do my doctorate in ‘women in authentic leadership, within the automobile Industry’.

Having led the diversity and inclusion projects for both Renault Nissan and Hyundai I have noticed that women have a natural trait in leadership through influence. However, I also noticed that we shy away in our influencing capabilities and imbibe on agentic characteristics to lead. So here I am on a mission, to encourage women to own the path to leadership and never shy away to be their authentic self in steering the automobile industry in becoming an inclusive industry.

‘Once upon a time’, a familiar stock phrase typically in fairy and folk tales.

The very lines grabbed the reader’s attention and got the mind ready for an interesting, adventurous, mystic narrative. Recent studies have shown that story telling is a great way to grab attention and a therapeutic way for story tellers to share their emotions (Dobbs BM, Dobbs BM, Jamieson J, Charles L, Chan K, Tian P, 2018). These days we find ourselves in a society that is fighting for time and the desire to read seems too time expensive. I remember during the early years of my career I was intrigued by a leader who inevitably started his conversations with his own personal experience, I may not remember his name, but I do still remember the stories he shared. The power of stories is way beyond our imagination. Join me on a short journey of corporate story telling.

A few years ago, I was invited to address final year engineering students in a reputed university. The students wanted to hear from a panel of automotive experts on career prospects within the industry. Post our little speeches it was question time, and the students were asked to raise their questions to any panel member they wanted. The first question was routed to me, with great excitement and expectation I looked in absolute eagerness at a young man seated in the middle row who slowly stood to his feet, as he reached out for the mic and with a very feeble but strong accent, asked me how I felt working in a man’s world? While he was finishing his statement, the rest of the students broke out in laughter (I am still not sure if the laughter was on him or his question). As I was surprised by the question, I could see the other panel members awaiting my response, while the students were settling down in their laughter, I asked the student, if he had sisters? to my advantage he happened to have 2 sisters, so I asked him how he felt living in a women’s world? The crowd rippled in laughter, and I could see a strong nod from many students. That panel discussion was something that triggered the necessity to advocate, that an industry could never be defined to a gender. As humans the traits and temperaments we hold is different but it’s that difference that brings the ingenious part of the team.

Story telling could awaken memories, but it’s also such a powerful tool especially when we struggle to get our point across. Employees tend to buy in when they hear our experience shared as a story rather than an instruction. Getting back to my memory box of stories, I remember as a team we were given a task in designing and delivering an important training module for employees of the body shop. We started work and came up with a strategy on how we wanted the module to be delivered. I happened to be one of the facilitators, decided to spend some time on the shopfloor to provide real time examples before the delivery of the program. From the very minute I started talking to the shop floor employees realised that our training plans if delivered, would be a tick in the box but never effective enough. I remember dreading to having to go back and share this with a well-prepared team. As a leader, we are taught to empathise and be transparent in our communication. But communicating change is no easy task. Feeling overwhelmed with the decision to having to choose to change or just go with what we had done, I choose to share my experience at the shopfloor with the team but never mentioned about any changes to be made. As I illustrated my experience, I could sense the team looking at the strategies that took us days to work on as they kept crossing out on activities they felt would not work, eventually in unison they came up with the decision that we should scrap our initial plans and work on something that was effective and served the purpose of the program. As we drew closer to the deadlines as a team we came up with the most innovative concept of ‘learning nuggets’ with the use of gamification. This was an instant hit, our leaders were delighted at the success of the module, our employees enjoyed the learning experience, but the most gratifying point was the fact that we as a team learnt by listening. As leaders we spend an awful lot of time in acquiring effective soft skills purely with the motive to enhance a leader in becoming a better version of oneself to the team. However, when we share our experiences, it makes us an authentic communicator which eventually ticks off the other factors on leadership automatically.

In my younger days I remember reading Enid Blyton’s ‘the famous five’, the adventure, the mystery, could never get my little eyes to go to sleep. I remember feeling anxious to find out what happened next. Stories have the power of creating that sense of curiosity. Safety within the manufacturing units is paramount, however wearing personal protective equipment’s is daunting. During a managerial discussion around minor to major injuries that had happened in the shopfloor we came up with a plan for facilitating a program titled ‘behavioural safety’. Creating a safe culture is no easy task, culture is so part of our DNA that making any changes to it could be equated to changing the blood group of an individual. Having understood the dynamics of the impact this could bring; I chose to promote a safe working culture through the lens of horror movies. Who does not like a movie that gets your adrenaline on a high, the only difference was this was a real movie with a moral. We got records of road accidents that were caused due to the lack of usage of PPE’s and partial wear of PPEs such as, what happens when a motorist does not buckle up his helmet? and how this one action could impact many lives on the road. This was done in a movie style which had the excitement of fast driving, the fear when the driver realises, he/she is gone out of control and the horror left back for the loved ones to deal with. This brought a sense of fear but also brought a behavioural change in the way things where done.

Stories help in weaving information; it arouses a listener’s emotions and makes the experience memorable for the storyteller. As a mother, I am always walking around with dos and don’ts to my kids. As they grow it has become their tag line that ‘rules are meant to be broken’, thanks to my story telling skills I quickly converted from a walking rule book to a teller of tales. I remember my son once requested for a video game, he was introduced to it by some friends, and he found himself enjoying the part where he sat in one place but could sense the thrill of speed. My initial reaction was to shout out a big ‘NO’ (All you parents could hear the volume of this ‘no’) but soon I noticed he became unstoppable, as loud as my ‘no’ went so fast his little fingers moved at the games. One fine evening, I decided to sit him down and share how little joys like this become habits that eventually lead to an addiction. I narrated a true story of a young boy whose life was destroyed due to online games and showed him several stories of young people who lost their eyesight due to video games. Slowly but surely it brough him to a point of recognising how disastrous this whole thing could be to his life. My No’s where no longer necessary as narratives where weaving it for me.
Marketing teams have been vivid story tellers. It’s not only about creating compelling market campaigns but story telling has also been a huge power bank in creating strong human connections. In my corporate journey one of the core CSR activities, I had been part of is to share my experience with the younger generation of students. I was once invited as a chief guest to a school that was exclusively run for children whose parents were affected by leprosy. I was scrambling for ideas on what to speak and what would add value to these young kids who society found difficult to accept. How would I connect with them and what would I say to bring a common ground of understanding. This by far had to be one of the hardest speeches I had to deliver. I was welcomed with a warm smile and a huge round of applause. As I stood up in front of nearly 200 kids, all I could see was eyes of curiosity gazing at me. I started by sharing my own life story and how I was raised by a single parent and all the cultural calamities that was aimed at destroying every drop of hope I gained. This not just demanded a bundle load of humility from my side, but it showed how well it connected to a lot of pain these younger people had been challenged with. I left telling them ‘If I could make it, they can too’. I left the place feeling emotionally drained, but I left back a story that hopefully would inspire them to scale up against the odds.
Leadership according to many studies is about influencing people. I strongly believe this word ‘influence’ is not decrypted in the way that is doable. Influence could also take place by the way a person carries themselves, or probably a speech presented. Though this may work, it works for a short time. To be able to influence people for them to act, influence has to go above and beyond by creating memories, by touching emotions and by reflection, what better way but through story telling which has worked its power over years in being able to convey, to create, to convince and most importantly to influence. Why not use the power of storytelling to make leadership an authentic journey.

⦁ Dobbs BM, Dobbs BM, Jamieson J, Charles L, Chan K, Tian P. People of Dementia-The power of storytelling, Innov Aging. 2018 Nov 11;2(Suppl 1):865. doi: 10.1093/geroni/igy023.3229. PMCID: PMC6229755.

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