Want to Be a Great Leader? Learn How to Tell Great Stories.

Want to Be a Great Leader? Learn How to Tell Great Stories.

What makes a leader great? What does a leader need to accomplish great things?

I’d say storytelling ranks near the top (if not #1) on both lists. Leading minds in academia and business, including Howard Gardner and Noel Tichy, say the same.

Part of a leader’s job is to convey big ideas, get people on board, and inspire them to act. Facts and logic don’t move people; stories do.

Our love of stories, and our emotional response to them, is hard-wired in us. Before we could write, we drew on cave walls to capture the stories our elders told. Stories bring us together and help us make sense of the world. It’s all part of the human experience.

The business world is no different. Stories provide purpose and meaning, and they promote progress. The ability to tell a good story is something no business leader can succeed without.

Every Story Is a Hero’s Journey

As he studied stories from various cultures around the world, renowned mythologist Joseph Campbell began to see a pattern.

The hero’s journey, Campbell observed, unfolds in 12 stages. Essentially, the hero is called away from his or her usual world, encounters new allies and enemies, navigates conflict, and winds up someplace very different than where he or she started.

In business (as in every arena), a story is defined by what the hero is trying to defeat. It could be organizational dysfunction, a market competitor, or the broader status quo. And there’s always a new world the hero is trying to reach.

Many people confuse story with narrative. A story has a beginning, middle, and end (“Mr. X faced a challenge, came to us for a solution, and succeeded”), but a narrative does not (“Think Different,” “Just Do It”). Stories portray the organization in action; narratives are about the new world the organization is working to create.

Both stories and narratives have a critical function. If your company’s narrative is its core vision, principle, or goal, stories reinforce that narrative by making it real for people—something they can see, relate to, and feel.

The World’s Greatest Leaders Are Legendary Storytellers

Many of the world’s greatest business leaders—from Walt Disney and Warren Buffett to Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson—use storytelling to turn a vision into a movement and get others on board.

Few leaders could tell a story better than Steve Jobs. Notice how Steve Jobs so effectively painted Apple as the hero of the computing industry at the company’s 1984 shareholder meeting:

It is now . . . the late 70s. In 1977 Apple, a young fledgling company on the West Coast, invents the Apple II, the first personal computer as we know it today. IBM dismisses the personal computer as too small to do serious computing and therefore unimportant to their business.

It is now 1984 [Jobs slows down his rate of speech and adds a dark, ominous tone to his voice]. It appears IBM wants it all. Apple is perceived to be the only hope to offer IBM a run for its money. Dealers, initially welcoming IBM with open arms, now fear an IBM-dominated and -controlled future. They are increasingly turning back to Apple as the only force that can ensure their future freedom.

IBM . . . is aiming its guns [at] its last obstacle to industry control: Apple. Will Big Blue dominant the entire computer industry? [the audience shouts ‘no!’] The entire information age? [no!] Was George Orwell right? [no!]

Simple, powerful, compelling. The audience gets it, and they feel it. This is the essence of great storytelling.

How to Tell Better Stories

Robert McKee, an acclaimed Hollywood screenwriter turned business consultant, has spoken and written at length about the power, necessity, and requirements of effective business storytelling. He sees it as a means by which leaders “author the future”:

When you use your imagination to envision the world in story form, you can sense how your corporation’s desire will rub against the world’s antagonisms before this friction sets events on fire. Story gives you foresight to see the consequences of future events long before they happen.

This isn’t magic. It’s the power of artful storytelling. Steve Jobs wielded it like a pro, and he made it seem effortless. But the truth is, telling a good story takes significant thought, planning, and practice. Jobs spent many long hours developing and rehearsing his stories. This is the level of investment it takes to tell a story that’s clever, meaningful, and effective.

Are you ready to get serious about telling better stories? If so, this list of helpful resources is a good place to start.

The Art of Purposeful Storytelling
10 Screenwriting Tips Every Brand Storyteller Should Know
Once Upon a Time at the Office: 10 Storytelling Tips to Help You Be More Persuasive
How to Tell a Great Story
7 Tips for Great Storytelling as a Leader

As you work to develop this fundamental leadership skill, focus on the end game. What do you hope to defeat, and what new world do you envision? Who are you trying to persuade, and how do you want them to respond?

This is how business heroes begin their own journeys: with deeply held convictions and a desire to bring audiences along. Each time they do, they move one step closer to a brighter future.


Want to Be a Great Leader? Learn How to Tell Great Stories.

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