Leadership Storytelling

When I was a little boy and my grandmother was still alive, we would travel to Philadelphia every Thanksgiving to spend the holiday with her. After dinner, my uncles would go to the front room. They set up a small black and white TV on a folding chair. If you asked them, they would say they were watching the Thanksgiving Day football games. But they were really telling stories.

My Uncle Pat was one of the first professional sales trainers. Stories were his main tools. I can still see him gesturing with a cigar in his hand as he told a story. He tried out material on my uncles.

My father was a preacher. He was one of the first to use stories in his sermons. Many older pastors thought that was disrespectful. Dad said that Jesus told a lot of stories. He would try out material on my uncles, too.

My Uncle Johnny was a cop. He was also an Irishman. His stories were always colorful and funny. He went for laughs and gasps.

It’s been more than 50 years since my grandmother died. We quit going to Philadelphia for Thanksgiving.  I’ve learned to use stories effectively as a leader. Here are some things I’ve learned about leadership storytelling.

Leadership Storytelling

You may not be an Abraham Lincoln, but there’s at least one way you can be like him. Lincoln was tall, but otherwise not very impressive physically. His enemies criticized him for many things. But they all agreed that he was able to tell a story for almost any situation.

Artificial intelligence researcher Roger Schank says that we think people are wise when they’re able to do that. It’s a skill you can learn.

The Stories You Tell

Every leader should be able to tell two important stories. One is the story of how you became the leader you are. Ken Blanchard calls that your "leadership point of view." Mark Deterding calls it your "leadership portrait." Whatever you call it, telling the story of why you lead the way you do helps people understand you.

You should be able to tell the story of where you’re going. It’s not a story in the usual sense because it’s about the future. But it helps people imagine the direction that you’re all going.

Leonard Tompkins was a mentor and one of the great influences on my life. He told me the story of how he started in business and helped me understand why he did things a certain way. He also told me where he expected the business to go. He told it as a story, what things would be like when we were out there in the future together.

Become A Story Collector

You won’t have a story for every occasion if you depend on your own experience. So, become a collector of stories. You’ll find stories in books and magazines. You’ll find them in blog posts and on websites. You’ll hear other people tell stories.

When you stumble on an interesting one, make it your own. Take notes so you’ll remember what the story is about.

Try telling the story to a few people to drive it into your memory so that it’s available when you need it. Add your own interpretation and flavor to the stories you collect. Be sure to give credit to the source. Don’t claim experience you haven’t got.

Listen to Other People’s Stories

Human beings have used stories to remember and share important information since we first crawled out of caves. You will be a more effective leader if you learn about your people. The best way to do that is to listen to them.

That’s hard for many leaders. We act like the only stories worth telling are the ones we have. But that’s not so. Let your people tell you their stories. Encourage them to share their stories and experience with you and each other. Then, shut up and listen. You’ll learn a lot.

Bottom Line

Make storytelling part of your leadership toolkit. Learn to tell stories well. Collect stories. Listen to other people’s stories.

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