A Storyteller's Guide to Servant Leadership

by Dan Mahle

Leaders are often taught that leading means speaking – asserting our ideas, interrupting and debating, demonstrating our value through the power of our words. But while sharing is important, we often miss out on our greatest leadership power: listening.

At Avanoo, a story-based technology company, we often talk about how story-listening is just as important as storytelling. What I’ve so often experienced while leading storytelling workshops is that the stories people share are only as powerful as the listening into which they are shared.

Servant Leadership fundamentally arises through our quality of presence and listening.

Years ago, Avanoo hosted a series of community storytelling events at our old office in a business park outside of town. We would gather together a group of people who didn’t know each other and create a space to share short stories about our lives and workplaces.

A photo showing a few dozen people sitting on chairs and couches while a storyteller shares at a (dimly lit) Avanoo StoryNight session in Boulder, CO – back in early 2017.

A photo from a (dimly lit) StoryNight session in Boulder, CO – back in early 2017.

At first, the energy in the room was nervous and awkward as people tried to assess whether the space felt safe and whether they belonged there.

The first few stories were often light and fun, which helped break the ice. Then, inevitably, someone would take a risk and share more deeply – perhaps the story of a nearly career-ending mistake, or a relationship they damaged beyond repair. In that moment, the whole energy of the group would change.

Because of the deep presence and respectful space we all created together, the storyteller would feel seen and appreciated for their story, and we built trust together as a group. From that moment forward, feeling a new sense of permission and safety to show up vulnerably and authentically, others would step up and share deeply, too.

By the end of the event people were often crying, hugging each other, laughing exuberantly – it was like we’d all become family. In just a few hours, we had built bonds of connection that felt precious, sacred, rare. It felt like our stories built a bridge to belonging that revealed our common pain, struggle, dreams… our common humanity.

We simply created a safe space with minimal structure, listened wholeheartedly, and affirmed each storyteller.

As organizers, the Avanoo team simply created a safe space with minimal structure, listened wholeheartedly, and affirmed each storyteller. That’s all we did! Yet the experience seemed to take on a life of its own – somehow emergently co-created and co-held by every stranger sitting in that room.

After the first event, I started thinking about how we could cultivate a culture like this within an existing team. What would it take to build that level of trust, respect, and camaraderie? Could the same storytelling process that turned strangers into friends in a single evening also help teams build deeper relationships? Would this result in happier and more successful teams?

With the right leadership, I think the answer is yes. In over a decade of work centering around leadership and team-building, I have found that Servant Leadership fundamentally arises through our quality of presence and listening.

Servant leaders are obsessed with cultivating leadership in others – helping their people learn, grow, and know that they matter. They do this by listening in deep, other-centered ways.

As Stephen Covey observed, “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” The best servant leaders I’ve known take it one step further. Instead of simply seeking to understand (which is still “me-centric”), they use the power of listening to enable another person’s learning and self-realization.

“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” —Stephen Covey

By being open and present to their team members’ stories, leaders have the power to listen in ways that invite vulnerability, creativity, and trust – the building blocks of team success.

So if you want to level-up your leadership, become a great listener. Because it is only in the space of that listening that your team members will feel the permission to share deeply and authentically. And it’s only in deep and authentic spaces that people feel invited and supported to open to their greatest potential.

Consider the following steps, as you deepen into your listening practice:

1. Listen to understand, not just to respond. More than anything else, the quality of our listening makes or breaks trust. Listening to understand is a vital first step toward building a high-trust culture. Once that feels like second-nature, see if you can listen (and ask open-ended questions) in ways that invite the speaker to explore their ideas more deeply. How can your listening support the growth and development of your team?

2. Listen with the intent to be surprised by what you learn. When we assume we know where someone is going with an idea they are sharing, then we shut down the creative potential of that moment. Whereas when we listen with the intent to be surprised, we help the speaker search for hidden insights and meaning that could only be revealed through the quality of our presence and the depth of our listening. What hidden insights might you invite forward in others today through the quality of your listening?

3. Seek to serve others through your listening. Notice when you are listening for your own benefit (to quench your thirst for knowing) and when you are listening for the other person’s benefit (to invite new learning and insight). Both are valuable – what’s important is noticing your focus in each moment. Does the focus of your listening change the way your team members share?

Listening is the untapped superpower of our time. And it is a foundational skill of every Servant Leader. When we are truly present with another person, we help them know that they matter; and when we listen to others wholeheartedly, we help them realize their leadership potential.

 

—Dan Mahle, Avanoo Head of Story & Culture

About Dan

Dan Mahle is a storyteller, facilitator, and leadership coach with a background in HR and over a decade of experience leading transformational learning programs. He is passionate about harnessing the power of stories to help people connect across lines of difference, thrive through ambiguity, and open to their greatest potential.

About Avanoo

Avanoo brings together the world’s oldest artform – storytelling – and the world’s newest technologies – AI, machine learning – to support teams in experiencing more connection, belonging, and performance. Our app makes it easy for employees to share and listen to each other’s stories wherever they are, and our insights dashboard makes it easy for leaders to understand where and how stories create lasting impact on their teams. Learn more: Avanoo.com
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