Storytelling as a Leadership Tool
In communicating a point of view, a principle, or a value, there are few techniques more powerful than a well-told story. A story provides a "mind picture" for the listener and gives color to an otherwise abstract concept. As a leader, for example, I could advise new supervisors to "treat employees with respect." No one could argue with such a suggestion. The following story, however, gives meaning to the principle. I've used this story hundreds of times because it happened to me (in 1982), had an impact on my leadership style, and others have told me that the story has had an impact on them:
Admittedly, telling the above story takes longer than saying, "treat employees with respect" but I think the point is much more vivid. Stories allow people to peak behind the curtain of things that have happened to you as a leader, to the company, and to others in the organization.
Another example comes from Southwest Airlines. "Don't take yourself too seriously! Have some fun!" Hundreds of organizations say the same thing. Southwest Airlines, however, has a story that they share that demonstrates commitment to fun from the very top of the organization. The airline was in a legal battle with another company regarding the rights to a marketing slogan. Southwest CEO Herb Kelleher and the CEO of the other company decided to settle the matter by holding an arm wrestling match dubbed, "Malice in Dallas." The event had all the trappings of a WWF wrestling match, complete with trash talking, cheating, and hoopla. The winner would get the rights to the slogan and the loser would donate $15,000 to charity. Everyone had a lot of fun, charities received $15,000, and it was agreed that both companies could use the marketing slogan. Kelleher was carried out of the event on a stretcher complaining that he had lost because he had earlier hurt his arm trying to save a little girl from being hit by a bus, had over exerted himself walking up a flight of stairs, and had a case of athlete's foot. This is a CEO that believes in not taking himself too seriously! Southwest loves to tell that story.
As a leader, you can use stories in just about any situation. Here are three very appropriate opportunities for using stories:
We all have thousands of experiences that can provide the foundation for stories that help perpetuate an idea, concept, or culture. You simply have to think about those things that have had an impact on you, a customer, or an employee. Am I saying that it is important for you to become a good storyteller? Yes. However, good storytellers were poor storytellers first. Good storytellers got to be good by telling stories. That's really the only way to get good at it.
I can tell you that a good story for business has three components: the setup, the story itself, and the point. The setup tells the listener why you are telling the story. The setup doesn't give away the ending, but it lets the listener know that the story is about having fun, or the importance of providing good service, etc. The story itself is exactly that and it will get better each time you tell it. The point tells the listener about the lesson the story illustrates. The reprimand story noted earlier, for example, provides the foundation for a discussion on methods for maintaining the dignity of an employee while taking corrective action.
It is very satisfying to hear a story that you have told repeated by others. The re-telling may bear little resemblance to the original, but that's okay. Sometimes a story takes on a life of its own. Sometimes a story becomes part of the folklore of the organization. That's how cultures are perpetuated, and that is the point.
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