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Why leaders need to be great storytellers

by Sarah Carter


Why leaders need to be great storytellersA colleague recently asked me who my favourite storyteller was. I’m not sure who they were expecting me to say. J.K. Rowling perhaps? One of the great political or religious leaders of our time... Gandhi, Martin Luther King?

I didn’t have to think about it and replied without the slightest pause: “My children’s head teacher.”

My colleague looked a bit deflated; she clearly was hoping for something a little grander: “Oh... really? Why?”

My answer was simple. Storytelling is one of the things that make us human. It’s how we communicate with each other. It’s how we explain who we are. It’s how we understand the world and our relationship with it. It’s one of the ways that great leaders can inspire and motivate others and create a positive and engaging culture.

And my children’s secondary school is a great example of a culture that really works. A culture where everyone is pretty much unified around the same vision ­‑ whether teacher, pupil, or parent – because of the stories the head teacher (let’s call him Mr. W) tells.
He knows how to paint a picture, he understands how to get people to really listen. Mr. W creates characters and narratives that his audience really buys into – whatever their education or background, whether they’re 17 or 70. In the world of storytelling, well, he’s just got it.

He doesn’t dictate the story or try to control it. He doesn’t make things up to sound impressive. He feeds back what already exists in the culture of the school – even if it’s not the ideal; he feeds back the creativity, the humanity, the relationships, the foibles in an honest and real way. He doesn’t expect others to tell the same story or impose it upon them. They feel they have the space to be honest and real; so they don’t feel controlled or edited – they can be themselves.

And that’s why people buy into the culture.

Whether we’re children, adults, individuals, teams, organisations or nations – stories are how we engage people, how we bring people with us, how we communicate who we are and who we want to be. It’s how we can inspire and motivate others. And Mr. W’s got it all sewn up.
So what makes a good story?

A good story has at its heart a big idea with characters and a narrative that people can connect with on an emotional level. There’s a clear structure to the story and a strong sense of direction to the narrative.

And what can impact negatively on storytelling?

No unifying idea, no emotional connection, and storytellers that lose their way or aren’t clear on what they’re trying to communicate will lose the audience.

What do we look for in our storytellers?

The power of the story comes from the authenticity of the message and of the storyteller. It has to be a story that is true to who you are; it should flow from what you believe and feel.

Great storytellers can make great leaders

Great storytellers have a clear and compelling story – as do great leaders. They inspire and engage people in their narrative. It’s real. They feel it. They own the story. They understand the impact that the story can have on other human beings. They recognise the impact their story can have on keeping an idea or a culture alive. They recognise the power for buy-in, for action and for change contained within the story.

Why Mr. W’s storytelling makes him a great leader.

Mr. W leads from the front. He lives the stories he tells. He knows every pupil – all 1,100 of them – by name; he meets and greets them in the street each morning come rain or shine; he reads and signs off every single university application; he congratulates every child on their performance in the school production. And they all love him. They all listen to him. Even when he’s tough – especially when he’s tough. People are inspired by him to be the best they can be, to work together as a community toward the same purpose and shared vision.
At a time when strong leadership is needed more than ever, whether it’s a case of running the country or managing your team at work, we could do with reminding ourselves what it takes to motivate and inspire others.

So, let me know, who’s your Mr. W? Who do you know whose storytelling ability makes them a remarkable and inspirational leader?

First published by the Resource Alliance.

Why leaders need to be great storytellers

Sarah has 25 years’ experience of developing communications & learning for some of the world’s biggest brands.

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