Why the Best Leaders Tell Stories
There was a semicircle of some of the world’s highest profile CEOs surrounding him, and you could hear a pin drop. Mark had come today to share his story with his peer group in this CEO network – his story of failure.
“Last month, I was fired from my position as CEO after only 18 months on the job. When the Chairman of the Board was suddenly standing in the doorway of my office and asking, ‘Can we talk?’, I knew it wasn’t going to be a good conversation. He said, ‘Mark, you are a great guy, and we know you have been working hard, but we haven’t seen any marked improvements on any of the initiatives you started. We need a different CEO to lead this team.’ My lesson in this was that if I spread myself too thin, I can’t impact anything. I should have focused on my top 3 priorities and spent the majority of my time making those happen.”
What a powerful message and a memorable story. It isn’t often you get to hear a CEO share something so personal, so vulnerable. Mark could have simply said, “Take it from me, you really should have a list of 3 top priorities that get the majority of your attention if you want to be successful.” Instead, he shared his personal story illustrating why. I can guarantee you that the other CEOs in the room will not forget his story, nor the takeaway. That is the power of storytelling.
Effective communication, inspiration, and motivation are often listed as top qualities for leaders, but what does that look like? It starts with using your experiences, or the experiences of others, to create stories that have a moral or a purpose. People remember stories, and they can create action.
It took me a long time to learn to tell a good story, primarily because I felt I was drawing attention to myself, which made me uncomfortable. Like Mark, I learned that some of the most effective stories describe my mistakes and then paint a picture of my plan to conquer a challenge. As I practiced telling stories, I noticed my ability to persuade and inspire increased.
Earlier this month, I had the honor of hosting Doris Kearns Goodwin, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of six Presidential biographies, including Team of Rivals (turned into the movie “Lincoln”) and her latest book, Leadership in Turbulent Times. Doris is the ultimate storyteller herself, but she also points out that the four Presidents featured in her latest book – Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, Teddy Roosevelt and Lyndon B Johnson – all came into office during extremely challenging times for the nation. Each of them used stories to paint a picture of the future.
“Every time Lincoln gave a speech, he provided the history of where we had come from. He would say, ‘Only by knowing where we’ve come from, where we are now, and where we’re going, can we get there together.’ When people asked Lincoln why he told so many stories, he replied, ‘Because people remember stories better than facts and figures. Stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end.’”
Last week, we finished a Signature Program. Kristi Hedges, a regular faculty member at Signature, shared the key ingredients for any story, which come from her book, Power of Presence.
As a leader, start to think about the stories you have and what point (or points) they could bring to life. The next time you are thinking about sharing a point of view, motivating your team, or looking to gain buy-in, dust off one of your stories before you dive into the details. Just as Walt Disney built the castle in the middle of his theme park first, if you can place the vision of where you are going in people’s minds, you can teach, persuade, and inspire them to join the journey.
If you want to improve your storytelling, you need to work on it. You can also check out this additional resource if you want more guidance: