Ask an Expert May 2014

Q:  Most good leaders seem to be good storytellers. Can you share your thoughts on why that is and some examples that illustrate the value of telling stories?

A:  Stories are a powerful tool for teaching people about what’s important and what’s not, what works and what doesn’t, what is and what could be. Through stories, leaders pass on lessons about shared values and the norms about how people should work together.

In a business climate obsessed with PowerPoint presentations, complex graphs and charts, and lengthy reports, storytelling may seem to some like a soft way of getting hard stuff done. It’s anything but that. Research shows that telling more positive stories than negative stories enables individuals, groups, and organizations to recover more quickly from adversity and trauma.  In fact, research indicates that when leaders want to communicate standards, stories are a much more effective means of communication than are corporate policy statements, data about performance, and even a story plus the data.

For example, consider Phillip Kane’s experience. His dad was a great storyteller, and he used stories especially effectively to teach lessons. Phillip has carried the family tradition into his business life at Goodyear.

When Phillip was named to head up a large team with previously poor engagement scores for communication, he needed to find a way to be more proactive about connecting with employees. So he began writing to the team every Friday, telling them stories in “The Week,” essentially a newsletter in the form of stories with life lessons in them. He carried the practice with him when he was appointed president of Wingfoot Commercial Tire Systems, a 2,500-person wholly owned subsidiary of Goodyear.

Storytelling, Phillip says, accomplishes two things. It offers a framework for relating to the message—something that people encounter in their own lives that can bridge to the main point. It also offers him the chance to lead through an example rather than to come across simply as preaching.

Telling stories forces you to pay close attention to what your constituents are doing. Peers generally make better role models for what to do at work than famous people or ones several levels up in the hierarchy. When others hear or read a story about someone with whom they can identify, they are much more likely to see themselves doing the same thing. People seldom tire of hearing stories about themselves and the people they know. These stories get repeated, and the lessons of the stories get spread far and wide.

Storytelling is how people pass along lessons from generation to generation, culture to culture. Stories aren’t meant to be secret; they’re meant to be told.

Jim Kouzes is the Dean’s Executive Fellow of Leadership, Leavey School of Business, Santa Clara University. Cited by The Wall Street Journal as one of the twelve best executive educators in the U.S., he was also named one of the Top 100 Thought Leaders in both 2012 and 2013 by Trust Across America. Together with Barry Posner, he is author of The Leadership Challenge—now in its fifth edition—and over a thirty other books and workbooks on leadership and leadership development.

Adapted from a podcast interview with author Jim Kouzes, Why You Should Hone Your Storytelling Skills, at Duncan Worldwide.   

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