Storytelling in leadership & management

Good leadership is characterized by good storytelling (or communication) – therefore a leader who is a skilled storyteller will, in all likelihood, be an effective leader.

Throughout the ages, stories have been used to connect people, to teach, to train, to bring people on board, to enlighten, and even boost morale, encourage and motivate. Storytelling originated with visual stories, such as cave drawings, and then shifted to oral traditions, in which stories were passed down from generation to generation by word of mouth. There was then a shift to words formed into narratives, including written, printed, and typed stories. More recently, social media has led to a huge increase in storytelling and willing audiences.

Good leadership is characterized by good storytelling (or communication) – therefore a leader who is a skilled storyteller will, in all likelihood, be an effective leader.

If you, as a leader, are required to increase performance in a sales team or deliver first-class customer service, then your storytelling skills will help to inspire employees, share business objectives, define company cultures and values, teach necessary concepts, give basic training, and even help employees to get to know their leaders better. Moreover, stories have the potential to make complex ideas, simple. This in itself enhances communication and helps to make sense of business goals.

Storytelling can help leaders to connect with those they need to lead because stories have the potential to trigger emotions. Without a story, information can be clinical but with a story, information becomes emotive. As such, the listener will connect with the information in a deeper and more meaningful way. This, again, will impact actions taken by employees as emotions play an enormous role in decision-making.

It is always easier to remember information given in the form of a story. What will you be remembered for in your next meeting; offering up a list of dull facts or recounting a gripping story?

Three examples of leaders who use stories to illustrate their personal and business objectives…

Howard Schultz

Schultz regularly returned to his own rags-to-riches origin story. He was the child of often unemployed parents living in Brooklyn, NY, who went on to become the CEO of Starbucks. He’d use the story as a starting point to describe the history and mission of Starbucks and to explain decisions he made regarding the company.

Schultz regularly framed Starbucks’ company values and direction in a story about his father having an accident when he was a young boy. Seeing his father injured and unable to work inspired him to launch a company that took care of its workers and provide them with benefits such as insurance and adequate time-off.

By framing his business goals in a personal story about his values, Schultz made his corporate mission comprehensible and he described his strategic decisions in a way that made sense to anyone listening.

Sheryl Sandberg

The Meta Platforms COO’s most effective use of personal storytelling happened after she lost her husband Dave Goldberg to heart disease in 2015. Sandberg chose to harness the painful tragedy to deliver a profoundly inspiring talk.

She described her experience of losing her husband, then went on to explain how she was able to rise from her unbearable grief to become a stronger, more resilient person.

She said, “…when life sucks you under, you can kick against the bottom, break the surface, and breathe again…you can choose joy and meaning.”

Rowan Trollope

Five9 CEO Rowan Trollope regularly uses first-hand anecdotes in his speeches. These stories make him relatable because they show he understands the wants, needs, and impulses of his listeners.

When Trollope was a leading SVP at Cisco, he delivered the 2016 Cisco Keynote at Enterprise Connect. He opened the speech with the story of his first experience with weightlessness at the “Zero-G Experience.”

When his instructor warned him he would laugh when he was finally weightless (all people do), he resolved instead to remain stoic. However, once he was floating in the air, he burst out laughing uncontrollably—reminding him he was human, just like everyone who’d been weightless before him (even professional astronauts).

Trollope’s story showed his humanity and endeared him to listeners. It also gave him an understandable jumping-off point to explain what he wanted to do with Cisco products. He wanted to create devices that delighted users, whether they were professionals in the industry or just picking up the technology for the first time.

We would love to hear how you use storytelling to inspire your teams; share examples with us on LinkedIn.