Want to Lead? Try Telling a Story

As a wee one, sometimes I would lie in bed and keep myself awake thinking of scenarios I didn’t have the answers to, trying to wrap my mind around some concept that was pretty grandiose. Like, “what if there was no earth and no planets and no stars and no moon or sun – what would space look like? Just black that goes on forever?” Interestingly, I didn’t end up working for NASA…

I guess I haven’t stopped this quest to philosophize the amorphous because lately, I’ve been trying to wrap my head around how the government, the behemoth that it is, communicates change within and to the public and motivates groups or even the masses to take part. In essence, how do leaders within the government or any organization effectively lead?

Along the way of this genre of pondering, I came across this HBR article by Stew Friedman, Professor of Management at Wharton – “How a 2-minute Story Can Help you Lead.” At large, it discusses how “leaders gain trust and teach people what’s important to them by telling stories.” It explains that a good leadership story has the “power to engage hearts and minds” and has these 6 essential elements.

1. Draws on your real past and lessons you’ve learned from it.
2. Resonates emotionally with your audience because it’s relevant to them.
3. Inspires your audience because it’s fueled by your passion.
4. Shows the struggle between your goal and the obstacles you faced in pursuing it.
5. Illustrates with a vivid example.
6. Teaches an important lesson.

This article reminded me of a book I read a few years ago called “Squirrel, Inc” by Stephen Denning. Maybe akin to delivering a message through the likes of Fraz Kafka’s beetle in Metamorphosis or George Orwell’s pigs, the book is a look at leadership through storytelling. In short, a bunch of squirrels work for a mythical company (no surprise there hopefully) that provides nut burying services. Squirrel, Inc. is having problems because humans are digging up their nuts and more than 50% are lost. The company wants to change its vision to a nut storing business but this has to be communicated within and this poses problems. The book outlines how the squirrels “learn the fine art of change through storytelling in their quest to overcome obstacles, generate enthusiasm, and team-work, share knowledge, and ultimately lead their company into a new era of success and significance.”

This idea of leading through storytelling seems to have a compelling truth to it. In our “breakneck speed” society today, “attention is one of the most valuable modern resources.” Going back to my childhood tendencies to wrap my mind around amorphous concepts, how do leaders, as Stephen Denning puts it: Persuade people to change? Get people working together? Share knowledge? Tame the grapevine? Communicate who they are? Transit values? Lead people into the future?

Maybe storytelling, and to tailor to our twittering and jittering society today, storytelling in 2-minutes – is something worth trying…

What are your thoughts? Have you seen examples of this that have worked?

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Craig Sellars

Great post Lauren and too true.

Team of Rivals (Doris Kearns Goodwin, 2005) is an excellently written book about Abraham Lincoln’s ability to turn rivals into allies. One of his most important tools was story telling.

A highly recommended read! Have an amazing week.

Andrew Krzmarzick

Excellent post, Lauren. I like your writing “voice”…

Speaking of GREAT books, another one that has a significant section on the importance of storytelling is “A Whole New Mind” by Dan Pink. Like Craig, I highly recommend it…for the application beyond leadership as well.

Another great book that uses story to talk about leadership is “The Radical LEAP” by Steve Farber – absolutely one of my favorites that I mention often…especially the whole notion of “OSM! Moments”…of course, you’ll have to read the book to learn about those… 🙂

Amanda Blount

I’ve got one too…how about “Whale Done” by Ken Blanchard and others. It is a really fast read. I normally do not like these types of books, but this one was a good one.

Amanda Blount

I have a perfect example of this. I have a coworker who was in the grocery business for many years (I think 16). He has a thousand grocery store stories. I have become very fond of his stories. In fact I came to work one day in kind of a bad mood, and the first thing I asked him was if he would tell me one of his stories. In just a few minutes he had me laughing. He is very good at telling stories; very animated. After reading your comment, I see why everyone likes him. He tells his stories, which are really funny, but we also get to hear about a different time in his life that we may have never heard about. We get to see him as someone else for a few minutes. He had a life before our office. And his stories are never very long. Just to the point and funny. I think he should one day teach. We have other coworkers who tell occasional stories also, and you can see how people are drawn to these stories. It is like a veteran, or your Grandpa (or both) starts to talk. Everyone likes to listen.

Don Jacobson

Great post, Lauren! I agree that stories are a key part of a leader’s toolkit. They are a great way to teach, whether you are trying to convey lessons or organizational values. Stephen Denning (The Leader’s Guide to Storytelling) and Annette Simmons (The Story Factor and Whoever Tells the Best Story Wins) have both written superb books of the “how” of story-telling.

It’s really important to be deliberate about the stories we tell, however. Telling war stories that merely entertain can be huge time wasters if overused (especially in meetings). Also, stories that make people cynical about the organization can be toxic. That drags everyone down. So it’s important to think about what lessons people might take from your story.

Stories are great because they are easier to remember than a list of leadership rules. They can also be extremely inspiring. Biographies and other historical narratives have become one of my favorite sources of leadership insights. You can see my favorites at http://govleaders.org/books4.htm.


Laura Fucci

Thanks Don. I just bought/downloaded The Leader’s Guide to Storytelling to my Kindle to give it a read. I’ve heard much about the art of storytelling, and am interested to apply it more fully.

Stephen R. Gallison

Story telling is not a gift for most of us it is a developed talent. Over the years I have had the opportunity to watch gifted trainers and politicans and those most successful were great story tellers. If God can use stories to relate to us then who can deny the power of stories.