When Leaders Tell Stories

by  Alan Derek Utley  |  Leadership Development
When Leaders Tell Stories

Charles wants a boat. Once upon a time Charles wanted to buy a boat. He approached his wife, Emma, with a list of personal expenses he was prepared to sacrifice to afford the boat.

Emma took one look at his list and was not convinced. She was not on board with the boat idea.

Not to be deterred, Charles paused and reevaluated his approach. After some thought he returned to Emma with a new plea.

Here’s what he said:

“Emma, I really want to buy a boat. I’ve been thinking about it for months and I can’t sleep at night I want it so bad. All growing up my favorite memories were of the times I was with my family at the lake. You see, my dad owned a boat and every Sunday my parents, my brothers and sisters and I took the boat out. We fished, we played games, we laughed, we cried. Now that I’m married and we have two beautiful kids of our own I want us to make our own memories at the lake. I really want to buy a boat.”

That was the day when Emma and Charles bought a boat.

This is a true story and one of my favorites. I love it because, while maybe not obvious at first, it serves as a terrific example of how to flex one’s style to an individual and situation in order to gain support for a goal. It is a story about influence, a critical leadership skill.

I Just Love stories

As a kid you would have found me in the front row at school for story-time. As an adult – have a good story, you have my attention.

But some of my all-time favorite stories are the ones told by leaders who recognize the power of a tale as a leadership tool. Stories are accessible, easy to relate to, readily ignite our passions, and – most importantly – can inspire and rally people around an idea.

Sure, data and metrics drive organizations and make us think. But stories will compel us to think and feel. A good narrative will speak to both our reason and emotion.

“People think in stories, not statistics.”
~ Arianna Huffington

Consider the immense popularity of the book Who Moved My Cheese? In Dr. Spencer Johnson’s book he recounts a delightful parable of four mice who care very much for their cheese and react in different ways when it gets moved, i.e. when they are confronted with change.  Dr. Spencer replaces statistics with anecdotes and he teaches us about change.

As children we told stories with ease. But as adults have we lost the art of story-telling?  Impossible. Muriel Rukeyser, American Poet, puts it this way: 

“The universe is not made of atoms. It’s made of tiny stories.”
~ Muriel Rukeyser

Leadership Stories Are all Around Us

Stories are everywhere, we just have to look for them. Here’s how to find them:

  • Look for themes while you watch movies, the news and talk to friends
  • Ask your children about their classmates and teachers
  • Read the biography of a president, famous coach or business leader
  • Invite a long-tenured member of your company to lunch and just listen
  • Read Aesop’s Fables – as one example, the Boy who Cried Wolf is a timeless tale of the consequence of lying and the importance of everyday integrity

Leadership Stories Are In You

The most personal stories can have the greatest effect on connecting our audience to us and our ideas. One of the most powerful ways to find a personal story is through reflecting on our unwritten autobiography.

For example, what did you like to do as a kid? Is there a story in there somewhere? Or, was there ever a time when you felt your back was against the wall and all was lost? What happened there?

Here are some questions you can ask to find your personal stories within:

  • When did I stick to my values in the face of great adversity?
  • How have I fabulously failed?
  • Where have I grown the most?
  • Why did I choose my current vocation?
  • What’s something I tried but never thought I would?
  • Who were my most memorable mentors? And how did they help shape me?
  • What am I most proud of in my career so far? Least proud?
“The greatest art in the world is the art of storytelling.”
~ Cecil B. DeMille

When leaders tell stories we listen.

Heard any good stories lately? Please share below!
Photo Credit: Pixabay

About The Author

Articles By alan-utley
Alan Utley is a Regional HR Director for one of the world’s largest vacation businesses. By night he dabbles in executive coaching, blogging, and public speaking and is proud to serve on the management faculty at a major university. In his own words, Alan is a “world-class wannabe expert in all things leadership and careers.” Connect with Alan at and on Twitter @AlanDUtley.

What People Are Saying

John E. Smith  |  24 Sep 2015  |  Reply

Hi, Alan:)

Great story and a very interesting post about the value of stories …

Something you said struck me: “This is a true story … “.

I remember telling a story about my values were shaped by a youthful shop-lifting event. In the story, I owned up to my misdeed and was rewarded for doing so. I told that story in from of my mother once … and was disturbed to hear her dispute my version of my own memory.

We know that people do not remember facts, but rather recall impressions, leaving out or changing some details, emphasizing others. As someone has probably said, “There’s no such thing as a completely true memory.” This makes me wonder about the relative value of “true” stories versus fictional stories.

The Internet abounds with motivating and inspiring stories … which upon inspection, are found to be apochryphal. I once spent a good amount of money for a motivational video built around a truly wonderful story about the serendipity of life, which turned out to be untrue, after some research.

Some folks undoubtedly use stories they know not to be true to inspire and motivate, while others may think their memory of the story is more accurate than it actually is.

My question here is: Does it matter?

What are your thoughts around using stories that may or may not be true to motivate and influence others. The emotions that an inspiring story creates are as real as any other emotions, but I wonder about the underlying integrity if the story which produces the emotions is not true.

Eagerly awaiting your observations about this. Thanks for sparking my thinking this morning.


Alan Derek Utley  |  24 Sep 2015  |  Reply

Hi John,

What an interesting question. I’ve been thinking about it all day. I think all “true stories” are rooted in some form of truth but the details have a way of evolving with each telling, depending on the audience and the main idea one is trying to get across. Indeed, if you checked the facts of my story about Charles and Emma you’d quickly discover that these are not their real names and that the real “Charles” and “Emma” have a different quantity of children. I changed these particular details, and a few others, for their privacy. Does that make the heart of my story any less true or authentic?

With that said, a story that comes from a purely fictional place should be labeled as just that – fiction. If we present a made-up story as true it becomes inauthentic and puts the storyteller (aka leader) at risk of losing credibility and trust. But even fictional stories – Aesop’s fables, for example – can be powerful leadership tools when used in the right way.

These are my thoughts and I’m curious and hopeful to hear those of others on this very interesting question.

Thank you,

Mary C. Schaefer  |  24 Sep 2015  |  Reply

John, it IS an interesting question, about using a story, whether the story is true or not. My gut reaction to “Does it matter?” is that it’s okay if the story means something to the teller. AND if they acknowledge it may be apocryphal, and don’t claim it as their own, if it isn’t.

I remember distinctly seeing through two “stories” I was told that were intended to make an impact o nme. I felt the teller was “using” the story to manipulate me. It might have had a different impact if it actually impacted the teller. Weird dynamic.

Thanks for raising it up.

See Alan, we need you to provoke our thinking!

Mary C. Schaefer  |  24 Sep 2015  |  Reply

Alan! Good to see you back! What a great post and story!

Funny that you mention stories. A close friend and I were both going through our own separate fairly serious issues yesterday. We took turns coaching each other.

I was dealing with someone who was kept trying to tempt me into a situation I did not want to be a part of. My friend told me a story about the 2-year-old she used to babysit, who would ask her question after question to keep her from leaving. We started calling it the “What is” story because he would ask “Manisha, what is this?” A flower. “What is that?” And on and on.

In relation to her issue, I told her a story that happened to me this week about a woman who would not let go when I told her my final number for an item I was selling on ebay. After telling the potential buyer twice she asked me if that was my final number. Yes. Then she went on to counteroffer 2 more times and told me I was hostile after I held to my number for the fourth time. What the…?

You know, I think we use stories all the time and are not always aware of it. Whether it is to coach a friend or teach a lesson, or or appeal to people to influence and motivate them, we have it in us.

Thank you for the excellent post and the reminder! Woo hoo! Alan is back!

Alan Derek Utley  |  24 Sep 2015  |  Reply

Hi Mary!

Glad to be back. :) I just needed to go away for a little while to collect some new stories that I now look forward to sharing with others.

You are so right. We’re always telling stories. It is so natural and normal and part of being human. I just love it when I see leaders purposefully harness this power in an effort to influence others toward a good cause.

Stories are the best.

Thank you for sharing your thoughts!

Mark Smith  |  25 Sep 2015  |  Reply

Absolutely agree w the story telling idea

I work w FeedMore, Central VA’s Primary Hunger Relief Agency. During the school year we deliver back packs full of food to about 2,100 kids all over the greater Richmond area. Each back pack contains 16 single-serve, self-serve meals and snacks to feed the kids from Friday PM to Monday AM. I drove to one of the community centers we deliver to w 150/160 back packs in my Tundra. A little guy jumped up on the bumper of my truck and swept his arms across the pile, touching as many back packs as he could, while saying one long WWWOOOWWW. This was a 3 second wow about feeding chronically hungry kids.

I drove away thinking, when was the last time I had a 3 second wow?

When was the last time you had a three second wow?

I’ve shared this story many time since, and I smile every time

Lori Silverman  |  27 Sep 2015  |  Reply

Hi Alan,

As the author of three books on business storytelling (Business Storytelling for Dummies, Wake Me Up When the Data Is Over, and Stories Trainers Tell), I wanted to thank you for reinforcing the power of story for leaders. We cannot talk about this subject enough!

I wanted to add a couple items to the conversation. First, the story’s key point, not the topic of the story, is what a leader needs to consider when selecting a story to tell, whether it be personal or from another source (and used with permission). Example: I tell a funny personal story in a keynote talk on personal resilience about what happened to me with a hair dresser to communicate why we need to say “I’m done!” to certain people and activities in our lives.

Second, in order to move people to action (which is the main goal of storytelling in a work environment, aside from deepening relationships), leaders need to learn how to storify data. We now know through research that’s been conducted, that when data is added to a story, it negates the power of the story. We include a full chapter on this in the Dummies book.

Third, there are many forms of narrative. It’s important to know that anecdotes, examples, descriptions, case studies, testimonials, and the like, are not stories. Yet many people lump them all under the category of story. Why is this important? Only story has the ability to impact people physically, mentally, emotionally, and at the level of spirit (where true change takes place). I wrote a piece with a colleague that demonstrates the distinctions so we can all learn the difference. I got this idea while speaking to corporate communicators, who admitted they don’t know the distinction.

Thanks again for bringing forward an important leadership skill!

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