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Why Great Leaders Must Tell Better Stories

leadership storytelling

Remember back to when you were a child. Did you get tucked in at night with a bedtime story? Well, I bet you didn’t know at the time that in those moments our guardians were displaying one of the hallmark qualities of a powerful leader.

It wasn’t care. It wasn’t generosity. It wasn’t responsibility. It was quite simply their ability to tell a story.

In fact, storytelling is one of the most important traits that leaders possess. In Howard Gardner’s Leading Minds: An Anatomy of Leadership, the author profiles leaders from all walks of life; rich, poor, educated, uneducated, political, social, organizational, etc. His findings yielded that “leaders achieve their effectiveness largely through the stories they relate.”

To understand why this might be, a cursory review of some ancient history is in order.

The Evolution of Storytelling

Stories have literally been told forever.

Cavemen told visual stories using drawings, the Egyptians told visual stories using etched hieroglyphics and the Greeks and Romans told oral stories in their Forums and Amphitheaters. Native Americans, Australian Aboriginals, African Griots – they all had their own version.

Fast forward to 2001, when a gene called FOXP2 (well, technically it’s called forkhead box protein P2, but we’ll stick with the abridged version for now). Scientists have been able to isolate this particular gene as the one responsible for giving humans the neurological skills to be able to string together words and speak them quickly and in sequence. Simply put; FOXP2 is the first gene that’s directly linked to speech and language.

If you buy in to evolutionary theory, then you accept the basic premise that human DNA can actually change if there are benefits to it. Over the course of many millions of years, after listening to and telling countless stories, the human brain has come to become hardwired to understand them.

With evolution in our corner, the pertinent question becomes: How can leaders utilize this natural ability to their organizations’ benefit?

Why Leaders Should Pay Attention

When I work inside an organization, I pay particular attention to the stories that are being told, and it doesn’t take long to pick up on things.

Each of those stories has a place, and tells a message – either of a corporate value being applied or being ignored, about the future of the organization, its past, or the leaders. Sometimes those stories serve the organization well, and other times they don’t.

Either way, stories are the DNA of culture, and they have great power to alter it.

The great responsibility that lies with leaders in organizations is in their ability to change the stories that are being told. Here are a few reasons why it’s important to take this responsibility seriously:

It’s not hard. It doesn’t take too much discretionary effort for leaders to create and tell stories. They often already have access to platforms to speak to their employees, and by paying attention to a few important considerations, leaders can make great use of those opportunities.

It’s memorable. It’s commonly known that people don’t tend to remember facts and hard data, they remember and can relate to narrative.  The more leaders are able to craft that narrative, the more likely their listeners are to retain it.

It’s required. Employees are constantly looking for information, and leaders have the critical responsibility to provide it.

It’s helpful. In order to move an organization forward, everyone needs to be rowing in the same direction. By telling stories, and having them re-interpreted and then re-told by listeners, organizations are aligning the messages of their employees.

It’s powerful. Told in the right way, stories have the unique ability to galvanize large numbers of people around a common goal. They can quite literally change the realities that employees experience.

How to Tell Better Stories

We’ve discussed the usefulness of storytelling, and the neurological capacity we all have to do it. So, what can you do to tell better stories in your organization?

From a practical perspective, here are a few things you can start doing immediately to make your stories more impactful:

1. Be vulnerable and candid

Leaders’ credibility and authenticity are constantly being questioned.  Employees have a strong desire to understand your motivations, so the more you can make them clear, the more likely you are to get your message to stick.

2. Anticipate concerns

You should know what your listeners are going to push back on, and know those vulnerabilities before you begin communicating.  The more you’re able to get ahead of those concerns, the more open the listeners will be to hear your story.

3. Choose your words wisely

Ensure you are sharing the most pertinent information, and letting your audience know what’s in it for them.

4. Practice makes imperfect

Stories are messy, and that’s OK. This is not a muscle that leaders flex too often, so it’s not meant to be a perfect science. Once you start using these skills, you’ll get more and more comfortable with the practice.

The good news is that there are plenty of opportunities in organizations to create and share stories. Think about visioning work, sharing strategy, describing particular initiatives, your personal leadership journey, showing corporate values at work, etc. – all instances in which it would serve you well to consider these skills.

Closing Thoughts

Storytelling is one of the few ways we can effectively connect knowledge with emotion. Stories help us make sense of information through narrative. The best stories are those that can capture the head, the heart, and the hands of your listeners.

There may be no better way to impart information, capture peoples’ curiosity, and most importantly, motivate people to act.

“Stories are the single most powerful tool in a leader’s toolkit.” – Howard Gardner

So, what story do you want to tell?