The Ancient Storytelling Secret That Every Leader Needs To Know

phases of a story


In 1998, I read Every Leader Tells a Story and it immediately validated what I had been doing — I had been telling stories to my staff, so much so that they were giving me a hard time about it.  But I knew that stories were more memorable and conveyed messages so effectively.  Recently I saw The Ancient Storytelling Secret That Every Leader Needs To Know by Patti Sanchez and I thought it was reminiscent of the work of Nancy Duarte on presentations.  Lo and behold, Patti Sanchez is the co-author with Nancy Duarte of Illuminate: Ignite Change Through Speeches, Stories, Ceremonies, and Symbols.  This is a terrific article that discusses the importance of stories and how important it is to listen to others and shape stories to make them meaningful to the audience.  Patti writes:

We already know how crucial storytelling is in business, especially for branding, PR, and marketing. Stories can improve understanding, make ideas more accessible, and make us feel emotions that compel us to action. But storytelling can also help us conceptualize the future. In leaders’ hands, great stories can help guide teams through long-term changes.

Often people use stories to make sense of things after they’ve happened—like that time your team pulled together in record time—in order to boost morale when faced with similar challenges. But great leaders also use stories to give shape to things without any precedent and explain how to achieve them.

They see their companies’ journeys as grand stories, with their teams playing an active role in the narrative. Just as a narrator guides readers through a novel, offering enough information to understand what’s happening and stay interested, a good leader serves as a torchbearer, lighting the way for a group of people and keeping them moving toward a common goal.

This isn’t a new concept. Some 60 years ago, sociologist Erving Goffman asserted that humans are wired to act out stories in our daily lives. Through a phenomenon he called “impression management,” we often assume the role of actors who engage in “performances” for particular “audiences” in order to shape others’ perceptions of a situation and of ourselves.

In those instances, we’re basically narrating a story as we’d like others to see it. But that story may be more than just a theoretical construct in our own minds; it may in fact be unfolding right in front of us. And the heroic quest provides an ideal template: In it, a likeable hero answers the call to adventure, overcomes obstacles that test his resolve, and finally gains the object of his desire in triumph (or falls short in tragedy).

A business’s journey toward a goal isn’t all that different. There’s a beginning, when an idea is formed and gains support; a middle, when a team must fight and slog through hard work to make the vision come alive; and an end, when the venture either fails or succeeds. That narrative arc looks a little like an S-curve, carving the story up into the classic three acts.


But while most of us can recognize that story structure in literature, movies, and other fictional accounts, it takes a great storyteller to present the messier events of real life that way. That’s why the most successful business leaders are often great storytellers, too: They don’t just see a new business strategy, organizational change, or product launch as an initiative to be executed. They see it as an equally epic journey, marked by moments of triumph as well as moments of defeat.

But a truly great leader doesn’t just tell their company’s story to their team the way they themselves see it. They also go searching for others’ points of view. By listening empathetically, leaders can not only gauge where they are in the narrative they envision, but assess what other people need to hear in order to keep everyone moving toward the object of their shared quest together.

Read the full story at The Ancient Storytelling Secret That Every Leader Needs To Know


  • Nathan S. Gibson

    Nathan S. Gibson is an independent worker compliance business partner who provides expertise and creative solutions to enhance workforce flexibility and maintain compliance. He helps mitigate the risks associated with the misclassification of self-employed consultants, freelancers and independent contractors.

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