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The leader is a story

The creative thinker and the business guru

Working on a new TEDX speech about leadership for the future, I rediscovered an unlikely story that I witnessed 2 years ago. It’s about a young woman, her bold plan and an unwilling business guru. Guess who won?

2 years ago I enlisted in a management seminar for so called “creative entrepreneurs”. That is how serious businesspeople tend to call people who make money from artistic creation in one way or another, mostly in rather chaotic circumstances. It was fun. Al 12 of us wer pushed in three months time to translate our ideas into viable products or businessmodels. Not an easy task for people with a natural resistance against authority, like most creatives.

One of the participants was a young woman, graphic designer, who got rather frustrated by her work for numerous women’s magazines. Making women believe that the photoshopped reality represented by these magazines were credible rolemodels, seemed out of order for her. Mostly because she didn’t recognize herself or her friends in the content that she needed to work on. So she got the bright idea to develop a mediaplatform on the internet for an unserved female audience, that was looking for content about other subjects than how to make the perfect birthday cake, or how to cook that incredible christmas dinner. But developing her idea into a real website with actual visitors, was a struggle. However somehow, by the end of the course, she got enough support and good advice to present her businesscase to a jury.

The Guru

One member of the jury was a mediaguru. A man, well passed middle-aged, who’s achievements in the advertising world were obvious, and his background in the publishing business for women’s magazines provided him with some credibility in the subject. So our graphic designer had high hopes before she presented her businesscase to him. She knew that he had the knowledge to evaluate her plan.

I thought she did a very good job pitching her website as a design for “women of the future”. Women who will be searching for new kinds of rolmodels. Who are looking for real friends instead of perfect puppets that order them to be like Barbiedolls. Her own story was proof of that. So she boldly told her own story and backed it up with data she’d gotten through marketresearch. It was an inspiring moment, because she gave us a glimpse of the future that was so real and tangible, that everyone in the room wanted to get up and start working on the realisation of it. Everyone, but one person: the businessguru. He lashed out at our young female entrepreneur, that: “she didn’t know the business she was talking about. That she took her dreams to be reality. That she didn’t have any idea what young women actually wanted.” It’s safe to say that he was mad. Polite, but mad.

old stories for new people?

But listening to his arguments we heard that he was very much holding on to the past. He was literally saying that: “Projects like these had been tried years ago and never had worked in classic publishing.” He refused any argument that projected some changes in the way women would be using media in the foreseeable future.

All of this crossed my mind recently because on the same page of a newspaper I read two different stories. One was an interview with the young graphic designer who actually realised her website in a 2 year project, and told the journalist how her platform now had about 200.000 visitors per month (which is enormous in Flanders). The second story was about the shrinking circulation figures of women’s magazines.

What this trip down memory lane shows is that leadership, true inspiring leadership, is about people who know how to tell the story of the future. Not about those who repeat the story of the past, even if it has proven right over the years. So if you want to be a leader, you need to challenge yourself to see the future and talk about it in a way so that other people see it as you do. And you don’t need to be a Steve Jobs to achieve that.

Are you ready for that special brand of storytelling?