Storytelling as a Key Leadership Tool

Anyone who keeps track of recent developments on the leadership horizon has come across the subject of storytelling within the leadership context.

Whether you are leading an organization of five people or 50,000, enveloping important business lessons within the framework of a story helps effective leaders do more than just pass on knowledge and know-how. Storytelling transfers theoretical knowledge into a practical context, the story itself focuses and individualizes the information, and the entire experience strengthens and inspires the team.

When I began my career in advertising, I was told the story of the agency's successful launch campaign for a major client's new product. This traditional German company was planning to introduce a new product aimed at a much younger target group. Our American creative chairman - just back from a visit to the States - realized that this campaign had to "be" and not simply "act" young in order to have any credibility with younger consumers. He let himself be inspired by something he had seen on a new Stateside television station: MTV. Instead of bringing out the usual storyboards in the presentation, the creative chairman had pieced together bits of relevant movie stock material in the fast-paced, jaggedly cut MTV style that would soon be all the rage in music videos.

When the agency introduced the idea for the campaign to the client, the client was at first speechless - then livid. It was not what they expected, and it certainly was not what they thought they needed for their product to be a success.

The agency believed in their concept and stood behind their innovative idea 100 %.

Their middle ground? They agreed to develop a parallel campaign more in line with client expectations and to pay to put both campaigns into a market pre-test. The client agreed to abide by the research results and launch their product using the winning campaign.

To make a long story short: The agency version got the highest pre-test scores of any advertising campaign ever tested in Germany. It gave the client's product a massive push into the market, quickly became talk-of-the-town, and even went on to win a creative prize in New York.

Oh yea, in the end the client agreed to pick up the research costs.

This story told me more about my Managing Director's and Creative Chairman's pride in their work and their willingness to take a risk for really good work, as well as about their attitude towards client satisfaction in a service industry, than any corporate mission statement ever could! And this is the kind of attitude I was eager to pass on to the people I trained.

How do you pass on information and know-how within your organization? If you haven't consciously tried it yet, here is a list of the five most commonly told types of leadership story, each of which answers a specific and relevant question:

Who am I? - When you take on a leadership role - especially in a small or informal atmosphere - you may think you are an unwritten page for the people around you. Wrong! Instead they project a plethora of preconceived notions and past (negative) experiences onto you before you have even had an opportunity to shake everybody's hand. Telling a story about yourself - one that highlights a specific shortcoming or business-related mistake you have made - is not only the opportunity to share a learning experience. This type of story also lets people know that you are not invincible, and that you trust them with that knowledge. It will make you more approachable and tells them how you tick.

Why am I here? - This type of story provides you with an opportunity to show your team that you have no hidden agenda. By being upfront about your motivations and what you hope to accomplish with their support, you open the door for mutual trust.

What do I want you to know? - Passing on an important business lesson in the form of a story helps your team remember what you want them to do and why they are supposed to do it. Encouraging your team to identify the higher purpose of their actions make them realize the real value of their contribution - and understand that you recognize it, too.

Where do I want you to go? - When defining and communicating a vision to your team, it is essential they accept part ownership in the vision, and understand their exact role in achieving that vision. Establishing this common goal is also vital when - during tough time - as their leader you need to re-activate their enthusiasm and motivate them to continue on course.

What are the core values that govern our actions? - It is (too) easy to write values like "integrity", "honesty" or "achievement" into a mission statement. Much more difficult, however, is bringing these terms to life in a way that people understand, as well as communicating how these terms impact their work and their relationships to one another, clients or customers. That exactly is what my Managing Director and Creative Chairman did with the story I recounted above.

Remember, too, that not only the story but also the storyteller can have a lasting - positive - impact on a team's or employee's attitude and performance. Maintain your authenticity by letting you team know that you are sincere about the message behind the story. By remaining observant as a storyteller, you can assess whether or not you are getting your message across. Practicing your story will reassure you that you are getting directly to the point you want to make, and that your team is getting the take-home value they need and deserve.

Finally: Make your storytelling experiential. Your story will come alive when you address as many of your audience's senses as possible. Make sure they not only "hear" what you are saying, but "feel" and "see" it as well.


Trina Roach is a coach, leadership and communications skills trainer, and HR consultant based in Germany. Her company - Creating Tomorrow: The Leadership Consultancy - works with both corporate and individual clients. She is dedicated to unleashing the IMPACT coaching and professional development can have on her clients careers businesses. With support and dedication, she helps coachees successfully conquer the challenges they face in reaching the goals they have set for themselves both FAST...

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