Turning Brand Leaders into Legends
Following President John F Kennedy’s death, the duty of sharing his leadership story fell on his wife, Jackie Kennedy. What she did was craft his story into a legacy that framed him as something more than a man, but as a modern King Arthur with America being his Camelot. The theme of Camelot came up a lot when she gave the first interview following his death. She ended the conversation with “There will be great presidents again, but there will never be another Camelot.”
Why is it that despite some of the facts surrounding JFKs life and presidency we remember him as the modern Camelot? Because leadership stories can turn great leaders into legends.
Naturalization is the idea that we look to stories for truth and often don't believe a statement until it is backed up by a story. In society we accept story examples as proof. In this way stories influence our map of reality and how we see the people and events around us.
For brands this means that a narrative surrounding a brand and its leaders can entirely change the public perception of the company. Perception can impact sales, customer engagement and the placement of a brand within an industry.
We have talked about brand narrative and the role of storytelling extensively in the past weeks. Today we will look at how a brand’s leaders fit into this equation.
The basis of intentional leadership storytelling is impression management. In other words, it is figuring out how to share ideas surrounding an individual to evoke positive emotions. For brand leaders, storytellers also needs to consider how an individual’s story and brand story fit together and how an individual’s leadership story is framed by brand narrative.
The age of social media has made narratives even more important. Social media channels amplify the narratives being told and allow them to spread extremely quickly. For brands this can be for better or worse depending on the type of narrative and whether it was intentional. In order to get a positive story to spread, brands need to pay attention to the visual aspect of their stories that is told through their social media channels. YouTube is especially helpful in sharing the interviews and speeches that contribute to leadership storytelling.
There are a few defining moments where we see the strength of a leader. These are the moments a storyteller should look for in order to capture a compelling leadership story. Leadership stories are important both externally for public consumption and internally within the company.
Things to focus on while writing a leadership story are the leader’s personal and professional highlights, the struggles they faced and how they overcame them, who their mentors and role models were, transitional moments, and most importantly their vision.
A few types of brand leadership stories exist.
For long term organizations, the brand outlasts the leader. Much like Jackie Kennedy immortalized her husband by crafting the Camelot narrative, brands craft stories around their founders or other retired leaders to demonstrate how their influence outlives their participation in the company.
Burt from Burt’s Bees is a prime example. The story of how a bee keeper and a single mom came to create a huge corporation is a large part of both the organization’s story and his own. His love for bees and bee’s wax is a vital part of his story and it continues to influence the brand story of Burt’s Bees, even after his death.
A true leader’s influence moves beyond their direct domain. When a brand leader steps outside their brand duties to become a community leader it’s an opportunity to document them as such. Community leaders are culturally responsive and hold a societal voice as well as their brand voice.
When things go wrong in a brand, people typically point fingers to the leader and expect the issue to either be remedied by the existing leader or a new one. Overcoming negative stories means focusing on the meaning behind the issues and the lessons that were learned
Representation is important for morale, especially within a large company. A story that makes the leader more relatable to the employees can go a long way in making people identify with the organization.
Apple CEO Tim Cook talks about how his sexuality as an aspect of his leadership story has allowed him to connect with people and lead them in a positive way.
He explains, “Being gay has given me a deeper understanding of what it means to be a minority and provided a window into the challenges that people in other minority groups deal with every day. It’s been tough and uncomfortable at times, but it has given me the confidence to be myself, to follow my own path, and to rise above adversity and bigotry."
Regardless of what the reason for a change in leadership is, a shift in leaders can be a tumultuous time. When a new leader takes over, the story surrounding their vision and goals of can make the change seamless and less ambiguous.
If the previous leader was a positive one, this could be done by framing the story of the new leader as having a vision that can be integrated with the old leader. This helps demonstrate that the company will maintain their brand integrity through that shift.
When the former leader is removed because of negative choices, the new leader is tasked with differentiating themselves through stories.
For example, when the former CEO of Uber, Kalanick, was asked to step down after some missteps and leading the company into a series of scandals, the new CEO Khosrawshahi had some cleaning up to do. The leadership story crafted around him highlights his differences from the previous leader and how he aims to remedy the problems.
When times are tough people look to their leaders for guidance. How a leader reacts during difficult times can be a real indicator of their ability as a leader. Stories about how a leader can inspire hope during times of uncertainty make for good leadership stories.