The Power of a Leader’s Story

What your association does involves more than numbers. Experts say stories about what you do and who your organization supports can do much to persuade and inspire.

Somebody asks you in an elevator or at a party what your association does. Quick, what do you say?

You might lead with a variation on your mission statement: We promote our industry to create a healthier/safer world, etc., etc. Or you might lead with some numbers: We support 50,000 industry workers, deliver X amount of credentials annually, and so on. That’s all true and admirable, but likely nothing that will keep the conversation going after the elevator doors open, or keep someone from bouncing to the next table round.

Leaders may be so fixated on mission and metrics that they neglect where their passion for their association comes from: The stories about how people’s lives are improved through an association’s work. “Most organizations do not tell stories with a beginning, middle, and end, with conflict and resolution, or with characters and settings,” nonprofit consultant Annie Neimand recently wrote in an essay at the Stanford Social Innovation Review. That dearth of storytelling hurts charitable nonprofits looking for support, she asserts. I’d add that the storytelling element is just as crucial for an association that’s actively recruiting staffers, attendees, members, and foundation or PAC donors.

True, it’s unlikely that you signed on to a leadership job to cultivate your inner novelist. But Neimand notes that organization leaders are always in the business of explaining the impact of their work. And that can take the form of a story. For an association, that can involve explaining your setting (here’s the industry we’re in), its challenges (here are the technical/legislative/environmental issues we deal with), the strengths it leverages (here’s how we support/educate/convene experts), and what it’s accomplished (here’s how members’ and society’s lives are improved). 

If you want your team to buy into your values, tell a story that shows someone living into them.

As Neimand puts it, all this storytelling doesn’t mean you make yourself a hero, just that your organization is doing good work in “a larger movement ecosystem working with other organizations and movement actors to transform systems and culture through their unique contributions.” 

Storytelling is also a way for leaders to promote not just what they do but humanize how they do it. In “5 Types of Stories Leaders Need to Tell” at the Harvard Business Review, author and speaker Nick Westergaard discusses how storytelling is a pathway for leaders to project humility and keep the organization’s focus on its goals—reminding them of why they’re pursuing them in the first place. For instance, he writes, “If you want your team to buy into your organizational values, tell a story that shows someone living into them as a means of modeling the way for them to do so as well.” As examples, Westergaard discusses leaders who’ve told stories about their approach to ethics and values. That’s likely going to resonate more than a lecture about your organization’s values. Your people want to hear how much those matter to you—tell a story about how you and your people live it.

You still need that mission statement, of course, and you still need metrics. But associations do themselves a disservice when they talk about themselves in only those ways—at conferences, in their publications, in that elevator. We are all flooded with so many boilerplate stories about nonprofitdom that it can feel like, as Neimand memorably puts it, “social change-y Mad Libs.” Use the opportunities to tell your own story, and escape those cliches.

Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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