Five Useful Ways Leaders Use Stories

Few would disagree that, for leaders, telling stories is useful — or even necessary. We know that stories appeal to people’s emotions — they can spread easily and change people’s minds. That’s why it’s surprising that leaders use stories far less frequently than they could. Many leaders I talk with feel uncertain about the right time to tell a story in order to advance what they want to accomplish. That is one of the reaons why it comes up as often as it does with the executives and high potential leaders who I coach. With that in mind, here are the five top uses for storytelling along with examples. See if it opens up more ideas for where you can use stories.

  1. To Make Change Happen

A technology leader I coached had reason to think that his division’s initiative was losing stakeholder support. Nevertheless, his team was singularly focused on meeting the delivery date by hook or by crook. So, he planned a half-day off-site session to communicate the urgent message to help his team regroup. They had been running hard, and he worried that they would be distracted by the belief that being productive meant being back at work. He knew, too, that whatever he did at the start of the day would need to get their attention. What he did was interesting: He told a vivid story about a time in the company when a high-profile initiative was completed on schedule — but with costly mistakes and the loss of people’s credibility. Telling the story of this situation landed the way he hoped. With a new mindset, the team began to size up stakeholder support and created a plan about how to win it back.

  1. To Build Trust And Loyalty

Personal stories go a long way toward building rapport, because sharing yourself is a means for others to find what they have in common with you. But not everybody has learned to bring their whole self to work. For example, a CFO was asked to develop her executive presence. She was strong on communicating financials but hadn’t yet learned to inspire anyone with her vision of where sales could go. Feedback from her team consistently showed that they wanted her to be “less remote.” I helped her to appreciate that people needed to be inspired to take on bigger sales goals, and they needed to get to know her better. We talked through her life’s accomplishments, and she chose to tell her story of persevering at school while her dad was ill. Sharing this story not only modelled persistence in the face of difficulty, but it demonstrated her ability to be vulnerable over her need to look good.

  1. For Thought Leadership

A Director of Market Intelligence was asked to speak on a panel about people development. She was unsure of how to maximize the opportunity without just offering tips. We had already identified the value of gaining greater visibility for her thought leadership as a goal that would accelerate her career. Once she talked through her views of what she looked for when hiring talent and what she did to boost her team members’ careers, we found she could easily flesh out her examples into stories. The thought leadership came easily by locating the philosophies that guide her decisions about people development.

  1. To Influence Decision Making

Our stories can move people, particularly to influence them in their decision making. When a bank wanted to grow talent across the enterprise, it began a pilot mentoring program. It envisioned senior executives mentoring more junior talent from a function outside of their own. But how could they get the executives to agree to mentor in spite of their busy schedules? Their strategy was to meet one-on-one and invite each executive to share a story recounting their own early experience of being mentored. Remembering these stories generated desire to give to others what they had received. It triggered generativity, and the numbers of participating executives exceeded expectations.

  1. To Unify Across Differences

The Canadian national team of a multinational hospitality company had a new senior leadership team, and employees began to feel they were on shaky ground. Legacy employees feared their hard work would be overlooked, and newer employees worried they weren’t getting the respect they deserved from their colleagues. The company’s leadership wanted to bridge the divide, and I was invited to work with them to make it happen. On the day, everyone participated in mapping a timeline of the company’s presence in Canada through their stories. Newer employees found empathy and compassion listening to war stories about how others managed without must-have resources. The legacy employees listened to stories of why newer hires chose to work at the company. Each group was surprised by what they heard, and it broadened everyone’s perspective.

Leaders can often use little nudges. Stories are undoubtedly ubiquitous, and that’s part of the challenge. Sometimes we need to remind leaders that stories can be a tool used to accomplish many different goals.

A version of this post first appeared on Forbes.com.

Photo credit: Joel Filipe

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