Storytelling Won’t Make You A Better Leader

Tell better stories and you’ll be a better leader. If you can’t share your ideas in the form of a compelling story, how will you ever motivate people? Great storytellers perform better.

You’ve heard the theory before and in a number of different ways: become a good storyteller and you’ll succeed.

The ideas and anecdotes promoting the power of storytelling are abundant. A quick search on Amazon for books about storytelling returns nearly 12,000 results. For perspective, a search for books on compassion barely 8,000 results and on empathy, just 3,200 results.

What Is All the Hype About?

The purpose of the hype is well intended, it’s to help people inspire and motivate others. One way to do that is through the use of stories. You see, stories create an emotional connection and appeal to a broad audience. A story that conveys a point enables a diverse crowd to interpret it in personally meaningful ways, and it creates an emotional connection. Whereas a single statement is limited in how it can be interpreted and in it’s ability to catalyze emotion.

This emotional connection is critical because information alone has never had the power to change people’s behavior. In the now classic article Change or Die, Alan Deutschman highlights how heart attack survivors receive all the right information. They learn dietary and exercise habits that will prolong their lives. Yet, in a startling statistic, Dr. Edward Miller states, “If you look at people after coronary-artery bypass grafting two years later, 90% of them have not changed their lifestyle”.

The reason? Information alone does not sustain change, but addressing people’s emotion can. It’s not enough to know the right things to do, you must feel and believe that they will have a strongly desirable outcome.

Stories are a powerful way to pull on the strings of emotion and to inspire change in people.

If Stories Are Such a Great Tool, What’s the Problem?

The problem itself isn’t with stories; the problem is whom we’re telling the stories to.

Here’s an example to illustrate.

My firm was brought in to facilitate the development of a team charter for a newly formed team. Two teams were becoming one. In the session were two leaders, each had led a team, but only one would lead the newly formed team. During the session, one of the team members asked a direct question to the new leader, “How do you plan to help us manage through this change?” Without hesitation, the team member’s former boss shot back, “It’s your responsibility to manage the change, we’re here to ensure it actually happens”. The team member’s new boss waited a moment for things to settle after the abrupt exchange and responded, “I don’t have the best answer for that right now, I think that’s why we’re here. Do you have suggestions in mind that I can work on?”

Two people sitting in the same room heard the same statement, so how could they respond so differently? The answer is, they told different stories. This is the problem with all the hype about storytelling. The vast majority of content available addresses how we tell stories to others. If we really want to improve though, we should focus on the stories we tell ourselves.

The first leader in my example probably told himself a story that went something like, “How dare he target and challenge a leader in front of everyone? He’s just trying to call him out and damage his credibility!” Whereas the second leader’s story might have sounded something like, “He’s concerned about this change and is sincerely hoping for support from those in the best position to offer it”.

Each leader told a story that revealed their response. This is how it works for all of us. The stories we tell about what’s happening around us and other people’s intentions shape how we respond. Think of when you’re driving down the road and someone cruises past you at high speed. Do you think to yourself, “What an idiot,” or do you think “I hope they’re okay and not in some sort of trouble.” If you knew the story behind their driving had to do with a spouse in labor, would you respond differently?

Rarely do we know the full story, so we find ourselves in a position to tell our own story and fill in the gaps. How we do that, whether with compassion or with assumption, determine our response. All the hype about storytelling is true. The absolute best leaders I know are incredible storytellers. They’re just telling the stories to themselves.

The Key Realization


“We don’t see the world as it is, we see the world as we are” — Anais Nin

This quite perfectly sums up the power of the stories we tell ourselves. It could be rewritten to say, “We don’t see the world as it is, we see the world as the stories we tell ourselves.” Telling stories to others is easy. It doesn’t require introspection or change in ourselves. Whereas changing the stories we tell ourselves requires deep thought, intentional focus and changes in behavior.

Once we realize the truth of this statement, we can begin to tell ourselves better stories. We can begin to remove assumption and insert compassion. We can hedge bias and nurture empathy. When we tell ourselves stories that are driven by compassion and empathy, rather than assumption and bias, we stop becoming the victim of our own stories and open the door to powerful interactions.

The next time you find yourself frustrated by an interaction or offended by a comment, take a moment and ask, “What story did I just tell myself? Is that story built on assumption or on empathy?”

In this way, you will tell stories that catalyze your own emotions for positive behavioral change—change that starts from the inside, rather than the outside.

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