Ask an Expert November 2018

Ask an Expert

Q: I’m looking to add the use of case studies into my leadership teaching. In addition to the case study videos that were produced some time ago, I’m curious how others incorporate this added dimension into their work with leaders.

A: “Our brain loves good storytelling,” says Paul Zak, professor at the Claremont Graduate University and neuroscience researcher. A “compelling, human-scale story” is not only persuasive it can actually change our physiology. We all know this when we are moved by a tender moment or frightened by a scary scene in a motion picture or when reading a good novel. Case studies that are compelling and human can serve that purpose in leadership development programs as well. They can go beyond the data and engage not only the minds but also the human heart.

I much prefer brief case studies to the longer, business school ones. And I routinely draw from the short stories that open each of the chapters in The Leadership Challenge across its six editions. For example, from the fourth edition of the book, I’ve used Patricia Maryland whose story illustrates what it looks like to Experiment and Take Risks. There also are many more examples featured in other editions that provide excellent illustrations of how leaders demonstrate one of The Five Practices. For example, check out the sixth edition for the story about Charles Ambelang who demonstrates how to Celebrate the Values and the Victories.

I like these brief short stories because they are more focused on a practice or a commitment, better illustrate the teaching point we want to make in a workshop or debrief session, and more likely to work within the time constraints of the program design.

When I use a story, I typically will ask people to listen to the story as I retell it—or read it silently from the book—and then I ask: “What did you notice? What did this leader do that demonstrates the Practice?” (Please be mindful that whenever you are using material from one of our books, it is permissible to retell a story from The Leadership Challenge, particularly if people have a copy of the book. If you wish to reproduce any story in digital or print format, you must seek permission via and a fee may be charged.)

In addition to incorporating stories of leaders whom Barry and I have interviewed and included in our published works, I also like participants to reflect on their Personal-Best Leadership Experiences as “cases.” Frequently referring back to personal-best stories helps to reinforce that there’s a great deal to learn by continuously reflecting on what they are doing that does (or does not) exemplify The Five Practices. A related option is to ask participants about their current leadership challenges at work or in other settings. These “cases” can be presented as a challenge in a small group discussion and then everyone can offer ideas about how one or more of The Five Practices can be used to address the issues apparent in the challenge.

It’s well worth remembering, to quote Paul Zak again, that “When you want to motivate, persuade, or be remembered, start with a story of human struggle and eventual triumph. It will capture people’s hearts—by first attracting their brains.”

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 the recipient of the 2015 Lifetime Achievement Award by Trust Across America. Together with Barry Posner, he is author of over 30 books and workbooks on leadership and leadership development, including the most recent Stop Selling & Start Leading (with additional co-author Deb Calvert), fully-revised and updated sixth edition of the international bestseller, The Leadership Challenge, and Learning Leadership, selected by Strategy+Business as one of the 2016 Best Business Books of Year.


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