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Is Storytelling Key to Better Leadership?

Gayathri sitting on a stool with a quote next to her that says "Once you know someone's story, it's hard to be angry or fearful of them." - Gayathri Shukla, Campfire Kinship

By Mounira Chehade; April 2022

This article originally appeared on Ethical Entrpreneurship Magazine here (flip to page 17).

Take a moment to think about the best boss you’ve ever had. Maybe they took you outside your comfort zone, inspired a passion for your career, or encouraged new endeavours entirely. Now, picture the worst boss you’ve ever had — was it someone who caused you severe angst or just didn’t quite understand you? How did these different leaders impact your quality of life and career? 

Company culture and leadership have become increasingly popular subjects of conversation. Is there a right or wrong way to lead a team? Do certain work cultures yield better results? It’s a topic that has many employers questioning which qualities make the best leaders. 

A Calgary-based entrepreneur is tackling these questions and exploring ways that storytelling can be used to foster better leadership and build greater trust within teams. 

Gayathri Shukla believes that stories hold incredible power to shape our understanding of ourselves, and our understanding of others. Her social enterprise, Campfire Kinship Storytelling Inc., is utilizing the potential of storytelling in innovative ways to create transformation within individuals and the broader community. “Campfire Kinship offers story-based solutions to help people reclaim their unique stories, perspectives, and their authentic voices, while finding a sense of belonging with others,” she says. 

Shukla draws from her certification in Guided Autobiography to facilitate storytelling for participants in Campfire Kinship’s various workshops. “It’s a structured method that helps people reflect on their life experiences through a set of themes as well as guided questions and prompts,” she explains. By sharing their stories among intimate circles, attendees hone skills relating to attentive listening and providing supportive feedback. “The beautiful thing is that, in the process, they end up appreciating others around them as well, and actually get to see the gifts that others bring through their diversity,” she says.

Leaders and teams can access Campfire Kinship workshops designed to help them build empowered work cultures. For Shukla, the process starts with compassionate leadership focused on serving others. “Leadership, to me, means service. I think it’s about finding a cause that you’re committed to — a problem that you want to solve. It’s about putting your heart, soul, and mind into leaving things better than you found them.” This subscription to the servant leadership philosophy prioritizes the needs and fulfillment of the team. To be a successful leader under this model, Shukla prescribes an inclusive approach. “I think that’s number one —  how do you take into account the needs of your people, their ideas, their viewpoints, and leverage the diversity of perspective as much as you can, in order to unleash the best organizational performance?”

In her own role as a leader, Shukla seeks out people with diverse opinions, backgrounds, and areas of expertise. Her belief that diversity is a key driver of successful workplaces is reinforced by statistical data. A 2019 study conducted by McKinsey & Company titled “Diversity Wins: How Inclusion Matters” found that “companies in the top quartile for both gender and ethnic diversity are 12% more likely to outperform all other companies in the data set” (p. 24).

Though varied perspectives can yield greater risk of conflict, Shukla, reassuringly, finds that conflict can be positive if there is a culture of trust and respect. “You end up building stronger relationships when you can work through something that was challenging and difficult, and you come out the other end still intact.” The critical lever is uniting teams under common goals, values, and purpose.   

Storytelling therefore becomes a tool to cultivate inclusion, to find shared purpose, and consequently, build trust & respect within teams. “I feel that stories are a way to help people understand each other at a human to human level. Once you know someone’s story, it’s hard to be angry or fearful of them,” she says.

Shukla understands inclusive leadership as being rooted in authenticity — a quality that can be drawn to the forefront through storytelling. With her support, leaders get in touch with their own personal experiences, dig deep within themselves, and understand how their own values align with the mission of their companies. “When it comes to creating trust, employees do want to see that authentic personal story that leaders can share, and not just the company’s go-to messaging. I think that’s such an important step to building trust in the team,” she explains. 

When it comes to her entrepreneurial journey, Shukla is a big proponent of humility in developing both one’s leadership skills and business. “I feel like there’s so much experimentation that’s involved. I’m trying new things every day. I’m learning new things every day. Sometimes things work, sometimes they don’t. For me failure is just not even trying. I don’t even look at things as failure anymore if I’ve tried and put in a best effort.”

Campfire Kinship is demonstrating the world of opportunities that come from sharing stories: the opportunity to better understand ourselves, our connection to our work, and the perspective of others — their triumphs and struggles. Stories can, ultimately, help us develop greater authenticity and empathy — because if we can extend more kindness and understanding toward our colleagues, and toward ourselves, so much can change. Campfire Kinship is offering up a key to unlocking this change. 

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