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?

Training Isn’t Everything

I’ve worked in the OD field for long enough to know the true value of training. There are specific skills that must be demonstrated to succeed in any type of job, and more often than not employees need to be taught these skills. Sometimes they are technical in nature – think particular software training or “how to” sessions – and other times they are in the more nebulous realm of “professional development,” which includes leadership development. Although training can be invaluable, it is not the fix-all that it is sometimes mistaken to be, especially if not provided effectively. How do you provide the most valuable training possible? The checklist below can help:

Know if it’s a training issue – It is not unlikely for problems that occur within an organization to masquerade as training issues. It’s always easy to say “let’s give them training” and expect it to solve whatever issue is at hand, but sometimes there is more going on in a system than is acknowledged. In order to determine whether training is the right solution, a thorough needs assessment should be given. If training does turn out to be a necessity, the needs assessment will help to ensure the right skills are targeted.

Know when to walk away – As members of the consulting community, we have a responsibility to serve our clients to the best of our abilities, which means being honest about our findings even if the results are not ideal for us from a next-steps perspective (for example if a needs assessment yields that training isn’t the right solution). If you do not acknowledge the cultural realities that may be facing an organization, you could develop the best training in the world and still meet failure. If you sense that this is the case and you’re unable to help affect change at the system-wide level, you’re doing your client a disservice and should reconsider your value-add.

Know what you’re contending with – It is important to be holistic in your approach; be thoughtful about all that’s going on in the organization, what other initiatives a new training could potentially contend with, how people are held accountable, what people’s experiences have been with regard to training in the past, etc. Very often there is a lot that’s going on in an organizational that, if addressed, would solve the perceived “issue”. By being mindful in your assessment of the organization’s culture up front, you’ll be able to determine whether or not it will serve to support or block any new training initiatives that are rolled out.

Know what you’re impacting – While we know that not all training is effective, the only way that we know for sure if a given training initiative is having the intended impact is to measure results based on agreed-upon metrics laid out up front. By developing a robust measurement plan that holds the training accountable, you are much more likely to consider what design elements and content must be incorporated into the program to have the desired effect.

While I’d agree that training absolutely has its place in organizations, the system in which the training lives is paramount. In order for training to be the right solution, it is critically important that it be designed responsibility, and in concert with the organization’s existing realities.

The Importance of Now

Over the years, I’ve had countless opportunities to speak with people from all walks of life – children, adults, clients, colleagues, blue collar, white collar – it’s spanned the gamut. One unifying phenomenon I’ve noticed often is that when people speak, they tend to spend a majority of their time discussing what’s happened to them in the past (e.g., “I shouldn’t have done that.”, “That meal was great.”) or about what’s yet to happen (e.g., “I can’t wait for this project to be finished.”, “Vacation is going to be so nice.”). Keeping this observation of others in mind, I’d imagine it probably wouldn’t take long for you to find this to be true of your own encounters as well. There’s nothing wrong with thinking or expressing the past and future in this way, but it does preclude one key experience – the now; the full experience of what’s happening in the present moment.

In Daniel Goleman’s latest work, “Focus,” he makes mention of this “problem” in another way. Goleman’s research indicates that more often than not, in general people tend to be thinking about something other than what they are currently doing. People are therefore not fully in tune with what they are doing. I’d argue that as a result, we too often experience life on the surface; there is not enough processing of the current moment. By living life in this manner, we aren’t giving ourselves the opportunity to fully experience the now, and all of the emotions that it potentially encompasses.

If you agree with this basic premise, it follows that there are clear implications from this in the business world, including employees’ ability to focus on their work in any given moment or leaders’ ability to focus on the needs of their team. These of course beg the question of how to counteract this tendency.

  • I’d suggest four steps you can take immediately to be less consumed with the past and future, and be more concentrated in the present.Take stock – turn up the dial of your own curiosity; be actively curious about your surroundings and the impact they have on you if you let them
  • Take note – be conscious of all of your senses; what does whatever you’re doing right now feel like? smell like? sound like?
  • Take breaths – focus your full attention on your breathing – in through your nose, out through your mouth; practicing conscious breathing allows for you to bring your mind to the present
  • Take up a hobby – research shows that you can be more alert doing things that are active and engaging

So, what are you waiting for? Just focus on the present moment reading these words. Now these words. Now these.

How does that feel?

Pirating Some Lessons in Leadership

With Oscar season fast approaching, one of the big contenders garnering tons of buzz in the best picture category is Captain Phillips. This film tells the based-on-a-true story of a cargo ship, Somali pirates, and a 2009 hijacking. While this combination of elements in and of itself certainly provides a draw, another one of the film’s highlights can be traced to Tom Hanks’ riveting portrayal of Captain Richard Phillips. Although the Academy might not agree, as Hanks was snubbed for an acting nomination, the film provides us with numerous real-life lessons in leadership. Note: since this is a true story and is well documented, I’ll cut right to the chase and get the spoilers out of the way: the ship gets taken hostage, Phillips leads his ship and crew through the ordeal, and the Somalis get captured or killed in the end.

Now with that out of the way, it should be said that while it’s true (at least I hope it’s true) that most organizational leaders will never have to face the kinds of difficult circumstances that Phillips did, if you unpack the leadership skills that were demonstrated throughout the film, there are a lot of parallels that can be drawn.

  1. Using your Training – Through a combination of experience and training, having the necessary skills to do your job effectively is of great importance. While not every situation can be planned for, with a solid base-level knowledge of what to look for, what to do, and how to react, you can extrapolate into a variety of situations. Phillips had a good handle on policies, protocols, procedures, and commands, which ultimately served him and his crew well.
  2. Having a Plan – In high-stress times, it’s important for leaders to remain calm under pressure and set a course of action that will allow their teams to successfully weather impending storms. Phillips was very deliberate in his decisions, making moves only after thinking through the repercussions of each of his options.
  3. Trusting your People – When sitting at the helm, it’s very important to fully empower those below you to do what they’ve been taught. While being held at gunpoint under a constant barrage of pirate orders to summon his people to the deck, Phillips was confident in his crew’s ability to remember their training. He put on appearances, got on the loudspeaker, and summoned them all; it was no surprise to him when none came forward – they didn’t hear the safe word they had been taught.
  4. Making Hard Decisions – Making and committing to bold decisions is an especially crucial responsibility for a good leader. Leaders need to gather all available information, analyze options quickly, and make and clearly communicate tough decisions. One of the most potent displays of this leadership skill came not from Phillips, but from the Navy SEALs deployed to save him. “Stop the tow. Execute.” was the chilling yet explicit command given to the SEALs by their leader, right before three simultaneous bullets took down Phillips’ captors.

Though there are conflicting accounts on the internet as to the accuracy of Captain Richard Phillips’ portrayal, what’s undeniable is that the tenets of organizational leadership were very much in play throughout the film. A strong commitment to one’s people, a high level of preparedness, an overwhelming sense of responsibility, and a selfless resolve can serve all leaders – regardless of industry – particularly well as they navigate the rough seas of their respective worlds.