Leading through storytelling

I was running a Leadership workshop a couple of weeks ago with a bunch of Innovation leaders in a European Telecoms company.  We were working in their Innovation Centre, a closely guarded environment in the bowels of the building.  It had no windows, black walls, plastic grass for a carpet and car seats to sit on.  In other words Dead Funky and an inspiration for innovation, right?  Perhaps not.  It was cold and noisy, and one of the most joyless environments I have ever worked in.  But that’s another story.

By Day 2 it was getting tiring.  This was a bunch of highly introverted technical experts, managed locally by a technical genius whose style would best be described as “directive”, to put it politely.  It was partly a language thing, I suspect, and partly because the idea of leading through inspiration and trust was such a new one for them.  Most of them had been there 10 years or more, and were used to leading others and being led themselves by issuing instructions.

Then something transformational happened.  Their new CEO, who is demonstrating his commitment to building leadership muscle within the business by attending all of the workshops we are running, told a story.  He took a calculated risk with this and shared something only a very few others in the business knew.  It was a deeply personal story, and not a happy one.  It was to do with life at home as a teenager and his troubled relationship with his father.  He shared it quietly, slowly and with utter authenticity.  You could have heard a pin drop if he hadn’t been battling with the fork lift truck and building works outside.

The effect was galvanising.  It was as if someone had plugged in an extra power supply to these people.  A new human connection had been made, and layers of veneer and self protection fell away from the others in the room.  We were able to be more honest with each other, and started to share, coach, give feedback and tell stories which would have not been possible unless their new leader had made the first move.

Telling stories is a way of providing inspiration and motivation for people.  Leaders have used them for centuries to engage others and to develop a sense of collective understanding.  Storytellers across the world have often been appointed as head of tribes because it is such a valued skill.

Stories appeal to amygdala, not the neo cortex.  That’s where decisions are made, and it’s also where the long term memory sits.  When we ditch the facts and figures and instead use pictures, metaphor, anecdote, humour to colour in a story, it fires up the imagination, gets the blood moving, and leads us to recall and share the story with others (just as I am sharing this one now).

When the story you tell is a personal one you are taking a risk.  You leave yourself open to be judged by others, and it may backfire.  But opening yourself up, and being the first to do so, requires courage, and people recognise this.  It displays openness, and openness is a key step in building Trust.  Putting your vulnerability out there in a planned way  is what is often called “controlled disclosure”.  Leaders use this to great effect.  An example springing to mind is John Chambers, CEO of Cisco, who is open about his dyslexia and how he has to compensate for it.  Being open about this encourages others to do their same with their vulnerabilities, whilst also generating respect.

Good leaders tell great stories.  Martin Luther King did not create a watershed moment in the development of human rights in America by putting facts and figures out there.  He had a dream, not a plan.

So how would it be if you were to weave in story telling more often into your communications?  What about switching into a story after you have conveyed the facts and figures when you make your presentation?  What about getting your audience to use their imagination more, rather than spelling it all out for them (and having your message vaporise within minutes of you doing so?).

nancyduarteNancy Duarte says it way better than I could, and I urge you to free up the 18 minutes you need to watch this TED talk. If you’re looking for a presentation structure that moves hearts as well as minds, this video has the answer for you.

She also models “controlled disclosure” at the end with a personal story which again has a galvanising effect.  Ask yourself what the impact on you as the audience is when she displays so much courage in sharing this.

Back to my group of Innovation leaders a couple of weeks ago.  At the end of the event we asked each of them to stand up and tell us a story about what the programme had meant to them and how they planned to use it.  The team manager (the one with the “hands on” style) stood up, and told us a story about the concerns he had before coming on the programme, how he doubted its value and would rather have been doing something else.  He told us that he now recognised that his leadership style has been too directive, and that he felt that his relationship with the team has been “autistic”.  He knew what he wanted to change and was determined to do something about it.

I suspect he will now see his team behaving differently towards him, and the upside could be significant.

What stories can you tell, and need to be told within your line of work?


About Michael Brown Training

I'm a business skills trainer, facilitator and coach. I've been helping people to learn for 16 years, working all around the world on topics such as Negotiation, Conflict Handling, Sales, Leadership, Consulting and Personal Effectiveness. I'm an ENFP, constantly looking for new and inspiring things to do. I love my job for its variety and the stimulation I get from it, and spend most of my time seeing how far we can go with the subjects we work on in the training room. I've recently started a new venture in making video on how NOT to do things, which you can find at www.hownot2.com
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6 Responses to Leading through storytelling

  1. Marieke says:

    Thanks for another interesting article. I’m however struggling with the prevalence of “in-authentic” story telling these days, where I’ve heard some pretty personal and frankly irrelevant stories being told during presentations or training sessions, in what seems a manipulative bid for my trust… Whilst I totally agree with the power of stories, the need to stay authentic and relevant remain close to my heart….


    • Thank you Marieke. You raise a very interesting point. Once people start to “overdo” the use of some thing like this they can ruin it for everyone. Especially, as you say, if they do it badly. Irrelevant or inappropriate stories can undermine the message and dame trust, not build it. As ever with these things, judgement and sensitivity are needed.


  2. Dave Loewy says:

    Another great article Mike. It’s long been accepted that for teams to really work well, they must trust each other and to do that they must be willing to be vulnerable. Which in turn means that they have to be willing share their true thoughts, feelings and vulnerabilities. And as Patrick Lencioni puts it so well in “The Advantage”, that has to start with the leader. The question he suggests is to get every member of the team, starting with the leader, to share “something they found challenging as a child or teenager”. It sounds as though your CEO has great instincts and emotional intelligence.


    • Thanks Dave. I haven’t read the book but will now do so. I love that idea of talking about something you found challenging as a teenager, and will give it a try right away (as I am working with another group in the same location literally tomorrow!). i normally get people to talk about an object of personal significance, but this sounds even better.


  3. Dr Will Liddell says:

    Another good story Michael!
    My work is all about stories. The science is just there to make us feel better about our decisions.

    Liked by 1 person

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