Storytelling and Leadership

10 November 2015

Would you see Phantom of the Opera over 32 times? Bill Toner, CEO of CH&CO Group, once recounted the story of how he had done just that in order to build important client relationships. Not only was this tactic fruitful, Bill noted that he would gladly see the production 32 times again if it was what he needed to do to grow the business.  A simple but powerful story, not only for its factual impact, but also for the numerous occasions that it has been recounted since, particularly as an illustration of his leadership style.

To explain, inspire and build an organisation’s vision storytelling is undoubtedly an essential part of the leader’s toolkit.  It is an aspiration within many communication strategies and a key driver of employee engagement during times of change.  However, in our experience there is often a gap between this aspiration and reality.  Part of the reason for this is the simple fact that there is little time to reflect on individual leadership stories given the demands of a diverse business environment.  The other truth is that an understanding of leadership storytelling necessitates a willingness to take a personal leap of faith, as it requires a link between a story from the leader’s life and the outcome that they are seeking to achieve.

study from Harvard Business School, in which 125 leaders were interviewed, found that they did not identify any universal characteristics, traits, skills, or styles that led to their success. Rather, their leadership emerged from their life stories. Consciously and subconsciously, they were constantly testing themselves through real-world experiences and reframing their life stories to understand who they were at their core. In doing so, they discovered the purpose of their leadership and learned that being authentic made them more effective.

Storytelling makes you real. It tells how you have learnt, it tells of your development and it enables a view that you are not infallible, in fact, that you are a real person who has a lifetime of learnings to help craft the leader you are today.

The late James Strong, former CEO of Qantas, once said that “you have to be willing to put yourself at risk in the way you communicate and interact with employees.”  A quote that highlights a simple message: trust in leaders is essential and storytelling is an important part of this process. Often we look to our heroes outside of the business world for anecdotes and there is a compelling power in these. Martin Luther King Jr has inspired millions with this “I have a dream” speech on civil rights and he was a great man. But the real question is: how well do you appreciate the link between your life stories and the type of leader you are?

Some sensible and simple tips on the subject of leadership storytelling, from Steve Denning:

  • It must be authentically true
  • It must be positive in tone
  • It must be told in a minimalist fashion
  • It must be a story that contrasts ‘before and after’ the idea or change

Storytelling will help build acceptance for change, increase cultural alignment and drive engagement from employees. As leaders’ the first step in this journey is to connect personal experiences with the dream you want to create.

Kerryn Fewster

Kerryn is the Founder and Director of Change 2020. She has consulted extensively in the area of Transition and Transformation. She places emphasis on strategy development and solution implementation to minimise people and operational impacts associated with major change.

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