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The Three Stories of Leadership

Only stories inspire people. Data and charts don't

The most powerful person in the world is the storyteller. The storyteller sets the vision, values and agenda of an entire generation that is to come. – Steve Jobs

Leadership campfire

Leaders inspire people to take a risk—to fulfill a plan and a vision and to accept challenges and change.  But you can’t inspire people with logic and pie charts:  only stories engage the listener’s emotions so they can imagine themselves in a better world.

This article is about the three stories leaders have to tell and how to tell them.

A TRUE STORY ABOUT STORIES…

“I was setting up for a planning session at a law firm, when Dave, the founding partner, came into the board room and sat next to me.  We had five minutes to kill, so I asked him what was new.  He said that morning he’d gotten a hand-written letter from an old client, a woman he’d won an employment discrimination case for twenty years before.  She’d written to say her daughter had just gotten her first job, and the mom wanted to say that, thanks to Dave, her daughter didn’t face the kind of discrimination she’d faced as a young woman.  I said, “That’s a great letter!  You’re going to frame it and hang it in the reception area, right?’  Dave gave me that look lawyers know how to give and said, ‘Why would I? We get that kind of letter all the time.  It’s no big deal.’”

…with a little analysis: 

This is what I call A Story of Ordinary Benefit, which helps answer the first key leadership question, “Why are we doing this?”  My title for this particular story is, Dave’s Letter from Mom.  I love retelling this story because of its images:  the hand-written letter, the grateful mother writing at the kitchen table, the lawyer in the court room arguing her case, the daughter starting a new job with smiling optimism.  Most important, the moral is clear:  The work we do not only changes individual people’s lives, it makes the world a better place for generations.

THE THREE STORIES

  • Origin Story
  • Story of Ordinary Benefit
  • Story of Exceptional Service

There are lots of version of these stories and many stories have other stories within them.  But don’t overthink it:  you already have your stories, and a little structure and practice will bring them to life in other people’s lives.

THE THREE TRUE STORIES OF ACME WIDGET (only the names have changed)

1. Origin Story (Moral:  Our roots are special—and not about the money)

“My grandfather used to work at National Widget, but he kept having to fix widgets that failed when operating at high production speeds—just when the customer needed them most.  So, he invented a widget in his garage that used 25% fewer parts and a different kind of stainless-steel weld.  He went to a trade show (which he’d never done before) with his prototype on a table and got a break when Global Manufacturing placed an order for 100 on the spot.  He had to make up a name then and there, so that’s how Acme Widget was born!”

2. Story of Ordinary Benefit (Mission.  Your work really does matter)

“I was at Home Depot this weekend and, while I was looking at new shower fixtures, I bumped into someone who’s an Acme Widget customer.  He went on and on about how our widgets saved him a ton of downtime and money.  He was so excited, I didn’t have the heart to tell him that’s what we do a thousand times a week.”

3. Story of Extraordinary Service (Passion and compassion.  Your heart’s in the right place)

“The time when I was proudest to work for Acme Widget is when Sally from Jones Manufacturing called at 4:50 one Friday night last winter:  their key production line had gone down (they were still using old National widgets) in the middle of a run for their biggest customer.  So, Bob [an engineer], Jane [shipping manager], Dave [installation crew chief] and I threw together a pallet of our widgets and raced over to Sally’s, swapped out the bad widgets and baby-sat the production run with them until after midnight.”

WHEN TO TELL YOUR STORIES 

When crafting a communication, you’ll be glad you gave thought and polish to your three stories (examples below). Here’s when to prepare the stories you want to tell:

  • Planning strategy or projects
  • Orienting new employees, board members or volunteers
  • At an all-staff meeting
  • When forging a new partnership or launching a merger or acquisition
  • In a sales meeting
  • To counteract a rumor or bad news
  • When assessing your culture

WHAT MAKES A GOOD STORY?

A good story is about people, people who learn and change.  A good story includes details about the setting, situation and results.  It uses vivid language but isn’t overstated:  it’s honest and true.  It can have more than one moral.  The best stories include humor and drama.  Here are some tips:

  • Clear hero or heroes
  • Humor!
  • Details people will recognize and aren’t too technical
  • A startling fact or number that obviously important
  • Has vivid verbs, interesting nouns and doesn’t depend on jargon
  • A surprise or twist at the end.

HOW TO DELIVER INSPIRING STORIES

My mother was a natural storyteller.  She could tell the same story a hundred times (and often did) but would change it or change the way she delivered it to fit the situation.  Not everyone can do this, but it’s an essential leadership skill.

Don’t tell it frivolously:  make sure it’s really relevant

  • Make eye contact and build rapport before starting
  • Choose the right setting and timing:  people have to be able to pay attention
  • Tell it with the right tone of voice and modulate your voice
  • Use videos or props:  I once used two ketchup bottles to tell a story about innovation

WHAT TO DO NOW

You already know your stories, and you wouldn’t be a leader if you weren’t already a good storyteller.  But everyone can improve.  Winston Churchill and Abraham Lincoln never stopped refining their skills.

 Catalog your own stories and give them snappy, memorable titles.

  • Rehearse them on video (I use the camera in my laptop).  Awkward, but effective.
  • Ask for everyone’s stories, starting with customer service and salespeople
  • Ask your customers for stories about you.  Are they what you want?
  • Hold a “campfire” in which people share their stories.  It’s a great way to start planning.

You’ll know your stories are getting through when people ask, “And then what happened?”  People remember good stories and want them to turn out well.  Someday you’ll overhear one of your three stories being told by someone else—then you’ll know you’ve given your vision life.

That’s what storytellers do. We restore order with imagination. We instill hope again and again. – Walt Disney

WHAT HAPPENS WHEN THERE'S A BAD STORY?

Sometimes you learn there are bad stories people are telling about your company; sometimes they’re told by employees.  These stories might be true, but the best way to refute any bad story is with facts and a counter-story. Be prompt, honest, confident and persistent. 

STORIES ARE CULTURE 

While you can shape corporate culture with buildings, rituals and rules, what really gets people to change are great stories about how people helping other people.  Because that’s what all three of the leadership stories are really about:  people working together in the service of others.


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