The role of storytelling in leadership

Leadership through Storytelling

Here’s an interesting post I found this AM on “4 Stories Great Leaders Tell,” and here’s a good quote:

The Impact of a Story: A 10-year, 100,000-person study conducted throughout the U.S. and Canada by the O.C. Tanner Institute and HealthStream confirms that recognition and appreciation tops the list of things employees say they want most from their employers. According to the study, 79% of employees who quit their jobs cite a lack of appreciation as a key reason for leaving. And of the people who report the highest morale at work, 94.4% agree their managers are effective at recognizing them—telling a story about the great work they’ve done.

Most of the information here isn’t necessarily new and different. I’ve written about all this kind of stuff before. Most managers don’t understand conventional motivation ideas, no. That’s a mix of being clueless, not caring, not thinking their job is to motivate, focusing on deliverables/”strategy” as opposed to the building of individuals, and any number of other things. And the whole “People don’t quit jobs, they quit managers” idea has been around for decades. Again, nothing new or revolutionary here, per se.

But think about this angle on it and it gets a little bit “newer:” if you talk to most “leaders” or “managers” at most companies and you started talking about the idea or power of storytelling, here’s what I expect you might get back:

  • “I don’t have time for this! Storytelling is a marketing thing!”
  • “That seems fluffy! I’m hitting deliverables, baby!”

This is kind of a core problem overall: most people become managers and totally forget the idea of managing isn’t necessarily about day-to-day targets, but now there’s an element where you need to help and develop others. I was in a meeting a couple of days ago where someone I work with was basically telling me that I could increase my value by learning X-new-skill (I agree), but then there was no real plan, idea, concept, or execution put in place about how I could learn it. (Odd.)

Alright, so my primary point here: I doubt most managers would think of “storytelling” and say, “Oh, OK… that’s a leadership angle I could pursue.” But … think about this:

So here’s a simple potential execution of this idea:

  • Pause for five minutes away from your core work.
  • Think about your employees.
  • Think about something one of them has done recently.
  • Jot down 3-4 specific bullet points about what he/she did and the outcomes.
  • Rehearse it once in your head.
  • Either open up an e-mail to your team or, at the next team meeting, run through that story about that employee.
  • In 5-10 minutes, you just did something simple but extremely powerful for that employee — and hell, maybe for your team. You showed you give a shit and recognize their accomplishments.

Leadership and storytelling. It can work.


Ted Bauer

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