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Why storytelling is a powerful leadership tool

Books with keys set on top.
Books with keys set on top.
(Photo: Adobe Stock_

A five-year-old reading a picture book in her pillow fort. A college student and his friends at the midnight matinee. A ninety-year-old watching her soaps. What do they have in common? They all sit in rapture, drawn in by the universal magic of storytelling.
Storytelling is hardwired into the human brain. It’s one of our primary methods for learning, socializing, and making sense of the world. The drive to collect and enjoy stories is so indispensable from what it means to be human that Jonathan Gottschall, a scholar who specializes in literature and evolution, has jokingly labeled our species Homo fictus (fiction man). As Gottschall observes in his book The Storytelling Animal, even when we fall asleep, “the mind stays up all night, telling itself stories.”
It’s baffling then that so many leaders try to inspire with metrics, figures, and graphs while handing off their stories—the story of the organization’s founding, the stories of its people, the stories of their products or services—to the marketing department.
In our talks with Beth Comstock, former vice chair at GE, and Bill McDermott, CEO of ServiceNow, both agreed that storytelling isn’t an option for leaders. It’s a necessary and powerful tool.

Leveraging the Power of Story

People don’t engage with numbers on an emotional level. Not that we have anything against metrics, figures, or graphs; we love us a tasty line chart. But even if those integers represent the lives of millions of people, they can’t narrate those stories in a cadence that our social brains connect with. Why? Because they strip away the human element. We can’t imagine ourselves walking a mile in a statistic’s shoes.
To generate feelings that inspire people to action, leaders need to frame their message around a human-centric story. For this reason, Comstock advises, they can’t afford to view stories as accessories tacked on to the end of a product. They are essential in capturing

  • who you are,
  • what your mission in the world is,
  • why you do what you do, and
  • what you aspire to.

Without meaningful answers to those questions, why should an organization’s team be inspired or its customers show loyalty?
This is why Comstock recommends putting “mindshare before marketshare”. Sales numbers or quarterly earnings can be impressive. But they leave a fleeting impression on people’s minds, dissolving with the next passing thought. Storytelling is different. When we identify ourselves, our needs, our desires, or our life experiences within a story, it leaves an indelible imprint on us, a tiny insignia stamped into the mind.
It’s that type of story that can serve as a conduit to your message, strategy, values, and mission.

Scaling Your Dream through Storytelling

Your story should also unite your people around the mission. This can be especially true during what Comstock calls “cosmology events”—massive inflection points that change the trajectory of the organization and society. While such events are often economic (e.g., the 2008 financial crisis), they can also be political or social (e.g., 9/11)
These upheavals can bring organizations to the brink, requiring them to rethink old habits and ways of doing business. By re-evaluating their history—their triumphs, failures, and core strengths—leaders are in a better position to imagine possible future scenarios or new ways of doing things. They can ask, “Where does our story go from here?” and begin outlining the next new chapter.
But stories need to stick, and that’s where McDermott’s lesson comes in.
McDermott impels leaders to connect their people to the dream every day. That way, when it comes time to inspire, to pose challenges, to spur the team into action, leaders will be able to tap into their stories as a conduit to coalesce passion and personal drive with action.
As McDermott notes, this requires consistent engagement on a leader’s part. There are more stories available today than ever before, so to keep the organization’s vision in peoples’ minds, leaders must refresh or update it regularly. That way the dream stays front and center so it can give everyone something to strive for.
Tap into the power of storytelling with lessons ‘For Business‘ from Big Think+. At Big Think+, more than 350 experts, academics, and entrepreneurs come together to teach essential skills in career development and lifelong learning. Develop your leadership capabilities with video lessons such as:

  • The Art and Science of Relating: Make Your Work Interesting to Others with Story, with Alan Alda, Actor and Author, If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face?
  • Strengthen Your Emotional Agility: Becoming an Agile Leader, with Susan David, Psychologist, Harvard Medical School, and Author, Emotional Agility
  • Create Dream Teams: Lessons Learned from the Russian Hockey Dynasty, with Shane Snow, Chief Creative Officer and Co-Founder, Contently
  • Build Trust in a Crisis: Understand and Respond to People’s Emotions, with David Ropeik, Risk Communication Expert
  • Allow Your People to Bring Their Humanity to Work: What Leaders Can Do to Improve Employee Engagement, with Kathryn Minshew, CEO and Co-Founder, The Muse

Request a demo today!

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