Shaping the Narrative like a Queen: 8 Rules for Great Startup Leadership
So, before diving in, let us clarify what a narrative is.
Roughly speaking, the ‘narrative’ is the bigger context we give to facts.
“A narrative is a literary term for the events that make up a story. It is the way the events connect and make up the plot of a story or book.”
In German Wikipedia “narrative” is explained as:
Als Narrativ wird seit den 1990er Jahren eine sinnstiftende Erzählung bezeichnet, die Einfluss auf die Art hat, wie die Umwelt wahrgenommen wird. // A story giving events context and meaning influencing the way we perceive the environment.
A narrative contains answers to:
- What has happened/is happening?
- How do the facts link to each other?
- What does it mean? Overall? For us – in the company, team? The world?
Now, here is the thing where ‘narrative’ becomes really interesting and links into leadership:
For any given situation, there will probably be more than one option and/or perspective about it and how to shape the narrative – and the exciting thing is:
We get to choose what to make of it.
The narrative may carry a lot of cultural context – and is shaped by our perspective.
A quick sidestep: In Germany, we are always taught to ‘stay on the facts’, so we easily feel like we are ‘lying’ when we look closer into which meaning to give to a situation. “Facts” in this context typically mean the most negative figure or point of view we can find. Therefore, in Germany, we would intuitively opt for the most negative/depressing version as this feels ‘rational’ to us.
However, if you think about it twice,
is choosing a more positive perspective really less rational?
Or do both facets of any story have their own justification?
And who would we be (God?) to know the truth?
The benefit of a reliable narrative in your leadership
You give yourself and the team a chance for stability even if the going gets rough.
Why does this matter? Because as the person with the leadership responsibility, it is oh so easy to get lost in today’s enthusiasm vs depression. Especially in startups and scaleups, there is so much pressure and reward vs risk involved one gets either easily hyped or depressed, depending on who one talked to on that and what the ‘feedback’ was.
It is ok to feel those things; even more important to reflect on them and get them differentiated, which is just a daily mood – meaning: a momentary thing and what is the overall story.
Consider Pierce Brosnan and his role as the tycoon in “Noble House” (THE essential investment round series!), he will say:
“It’s me who gets to sweat.”
Ian Dunross considers being the tycoon of “Noble House” as an honour and responsibility at the same time. He considers it his noble duty to provide the stable core of the Noble House.
In his leadership concept, it is not upon him to throw the (emotional) load of it onto others. Doing so would be considered unprofessional and not up to his game by him. He sticks with the narrative of the capital becoming available in time, no matter what he has to do to get that done in the background.
Shaping the narrative and leading with it, can indeed be a noble and responsible task.
That is where the Queen comes in.
The Queen, during her reign, has often been criticized for not being emotional enough – whether that might be in positive or adverse events.
Like me, you might have noticed that this perception shifted when commentaries were reflecting on her communication with a big picture lens…
“What if… that evenness was actually her special quality? What if… that evenness actually brought the necessary calm to any situation that might extrapolate too much?”
And I make of it… maybe part of her centring leadership was to keep and show calm.
That holds in itself already a narrative:
“Whatever happens, the good, the bad, the ugly, trust that I will be here.”
Ok, so what should we do with the narrative? Is it ok resp. safe to use it? And to which extent?
Using narratives with responsibility
A narrative can be a powerful weapon – you can use it for good or evil. Therefore, seeing this sword in the hands of good leaders makes even more sense.
The “narrative” needs reflection and a sense of responsibility; otherwise, it can cause unnecessary risk.
Therefore: Let us not get manipulative, and let us not start lying to people – including ourselves. They will sooner or later sense or feel betrayed, and it will backfire.
If no one else, karma will get back to you about this.
So, use this tool, but do it responsibly.
Using the Narrative like a Queen Rule #1: Show calm if bad stuff happens near and afar
Do not get carried away by an external bad mood – especially these days when news seems to overflow with negative input. Sitting in Germany, which is basically the home base of the master school of homemade depression, I can tell you: This CAN BE challenging. LOL!
You can easily be carried away… onto a downwards spiral, that is.
However, if that happens, we need to check in:
- A) is this at all our playing field (nope, not anymore, it is Europe in the meanwhile) and
- B) what are the facts?
- C) what do I make of it?
Using the Narrative like a Queen Rule #2#: Leverage it for Stability
So, if you are in a build-up / scale-up situation, each day, each week, each month, each year will probably be a mixture of Yin and Yang, of cool things, of not working out things. Overall a big mixture like a marble cake.
Chances are, there are both parts in there and then sometimes you might be in a spot where today is just great; you’ve hit one of the vanilla or chocolate areas where they are broad, and you can enjoy them (choose your favourite dough sort here).
Giving that context in itself might already be really helpful.
But there is more…
Using the Narrative like a Queen Rule #3: Stay calm if great things happen
(love on 2nd sight)
Now the maybe even more relevant part of startup leadership:
Do not get carried away by enthusiasm.
This is a thing I often see happening in the startup and scaleup world, and in a way, it IS understandable. As the CEO, this is about your baby, and as with a real baby, there might be a considerable tendency to scream for joy whenever it does something for the first time.
There you go about what is risky about it:
If that happens and you show it so much, it becomes clear that you have left the rational zone.
This might be excused for male founders a bit more than for female ones (let’s accept the bias and work with it), but in the end,
investors know that passion does not per se make a business earn money.
The business earns money if it earns money, and if it does so without enthusiasm, this is even better.
If you get carried away with enthusiasm, you also quickly run into the problem that you can not possibly keep that level up forever and what if it ‘falls’ down and then back to ‘normal’ levels?
Everything will suddenly feel very shallow and negative for you and the team – more negative than it actually is.
So this is why sharing your momentary enthusiasm too much might not be as helpful as we think in the first place.
Both reactions and narratives (“this means we’ve made it” / “this means we’re probably ruined”) would take you and your team to unnecessary lows and heights – and mentally, it is that delta between high, middle, and low that makes everyday work unnecessarily exhausting.
For you, that might even feel exciting and like a fun rollercoaster ride (and hey, the ability to enjoy it might be one of the reasons you are in a leadership position in a growth situation); chances are most people on your team will not appreciate it as much.
Using the Narrative like a Queen Rule #4: It is about the Bigger Picture
Now your job as the leader of the pack is to zoom out regularly and tell your team:
- hey, this is ok
- we got good stuff and bad stuff
- the good stuff is going towards the right direction
- the bad stuff is neither going to kill us, we’ve made sure we’ll deal with it
- we are in a marble cake situation
- this marble cake sells well, we are making sure of it
Give your team context about the bigger causalities (what are the significant trends in the economy, politics, your industry, main KPI – yes, read them up, keep it current, be the one in the know, have, therefore, natural authority about it.).
Be the parent who says:
Hey, this hurt, but you know what – you and we will be ok.
Do it even if it does not feel like it.
This is not dishonesty, this is responsible.
Using the Narrative like a Queen Rule #5: Review if needed and be honest when things get critical
When should you change your narrative?
I recommend doing this only after thinking about your message and how everyone can help. Or at least having a clear invite to everyone to think about how they can help.
If you have those great survival movies such as Kinky Boots, the situation where everybody chimes in and contributes whatever they can, this happens because the ask is concrete enough.
It is your job as the leader to find out what is really going on, get to the root causes, update the narrative – and then ask for help. Or ask for help finding out what is going on. But always be sure to get it out of the abstract fog that it most probably will be – otherwise, it would only lead to even more confusion and insecurity.
People hate that feeling (we all do), and depending on their personality/mindset, they will duck away instead of being helpful.
Using the Narrative like a Queen Rule #6: Remote or not remote? Make sure it does not matter.
This has not been made easier by working remotely.
Doing a ‘hey, meet in the hall after lunch session’ felt easier.
Be assured: It never really was; we simply did not realize that we need to shape our internal communication as much on the pro level as we need to do it for our clients or business partners.
Our team deserves that effort.
If you use your blade (and your words ARE your actions as a leader), better ensure it is well-sharpened and applied in the right time and space.
Using the Narrative like a Queen Rule #7: Leverage the Art of what to leave out
Ok, let’s revisit the Queen again…
Recall the Queen talking about how and why etc. they lost their colonies?
There’s a reason for that: Because she didn’t.
It was not in her narrative.
Her narrative was the one of England and the Commonwealth (whoever that meant at that moment) being a great people. That is high level enough so it is accurate and leaves out enough detail so this does not need to be discussed.
It is ok to leave out certain things that will not help shape the narrative – because here you are talking about the bigger picture.
Using the Narrative like a Queen Rule #8: Do not overuse it.
Your message needs to be positively redundant, yes, but at the same time, the blade / your words and story will lose its effect if you overdo it.
Also, no diverging here, no overly use of synonyms.
Shape the story and the words and stick with them. It will feel and sound much more confident.
If you meander around too much, it will feel like you’re still searching for the right tool.
Don’t do this.
Shape it, stick with it.
Let it also give you the structure and backbone to come back to.
Do not update too often – only if new things arise that reaffirms it.
“We are on a good way to do this or that – now we logged in xy client, so this reconfirms us being on a good way there.”
The overall narrative is def. on the big picture level, not on the everyday nitty-gritty annoying things level.
This is your moment to channel the Queen’s unshaken resolve to stay calm and in the eye of the storm or the champagne party lurking around the corner no matter.
Your team, results, investors will thank you for it.
So… what about you?
Have you ever consciously used a narrative – and in what ways do you plan to refine that?
Or maybe you used it, but weren’t aware of it so far? Either way: Let us have your thoughts and insights in the comments down below!
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