Why story telling is an extremely valuable skill for any leader

Paul Slezak

Whenever I run a program for a group of leaders (particularly if the workshop runs over two or three days), I ask all the participants to bring something along that is important to them. It doesn’t have to be anything big. It just has to be meaningful. 

One of the very first activities we run is a bit of a ‘show and tell’ exercise where we sit in a circle, and everyone has a chance to talk about their personal object. 

The most common items that get brought along are typically photos capturing unique family moments; certificates, medals or trophies recognising personal achievements; or pieces of jewellery which may have been a gift from or belonged to a special family member. 

In a recent workshop, one leader (Trish) brought something along which reinforced to me why this particular activity (as simple as it sounds) is actually a wonderful leadership lesson in itself. 

She brought a travel diary that she had kept on what must have been an incredible trip to Africa in 1994. As she held the small, leather-bound journal in her hand, she talked about why this trip had been so special and how it had been a turning point in her life. It had been thanks to some of the people she met on her African adventure that she had made some major career (and life) decisions. 

Someone else in the group then asked her if she would feel comfortable reading us a few of the diary entries. 

I could see Trish’s eyes welling up bit. She told us that she hadn’t opened the journal since she had returned from that trip … nearly 30 years ago. And then she opened the diary to a random page … 

Within seconds, we were all transported to the plains of the Serengeti. It was like we were hearing from Ernest Hemmingway or Joseph Conrad. 

Trish read for about five minutes and when she stopped and looked around the circle, she saw what an impact she’d had on the group, before a huge round of applause erupted in the room. 

“And that, my friends”, I said, “is exactly why story telling is such an incredibly important skill for any leader to possess”. 

Story telling is a powerful tool that can help leaders connect with their teams, build trust, and drive meaningful change. 

It can be used to communicate complex ideas, inspire and motivate others, and build a strong organisational culture. 

Leaders often need to convey complex ideas or strategies to their teams, stakeholders, or investors. Story telling can help simplify these concepts by putting them into a relatable and engaging narrative that people can easily understand and remember. 

In the scenario I shared above, Trish’s narration had been incredibly engaging and one that many of us in the room would remember for a very long time. 

Stories have the power to inspire and motivate people by tapping into their emotions and creating a sense of shared purpose.  

Leaders can use stories to communicate their vision, values and goals in a way that resonates with their audience and inspires them to take action. 

Story telling can also help leaders build a strong organisational culture by reinforcing shared values and beliefs. By sharing stories about the company’s history, successes, and challenges, leaders can create a sense of identity and community that fosters loyalty and commitment among employees. 

I had my own company for over 10 years and even today, whenever I share stories about the incredible roller coaster ride that it was, people tell me that they cannot only hear, but that they can also see the passion and commitment I had for what I was building at the time. 

As a leader, what are some of the stories you’ve had to share?  

Successes? Challenges? Big wins? Difficult decisions? Pivotal moments?

No matter how long you have been a leader, you would have many stories to tell. I’m not talking about the ‘once upon a time in a land far far away’ type of story where ‘they all live happily ever after’. I’m talking about stories where you’ve been the protagonist setting the course of your own adventure, slaying all the metaphorical dragons, and putting out the fires along the way, and perhaps even rising like a phoenix from the ashes. 

Depending on the context, a leader can share a wide range of stories and narratives with their team, advisory board, investor group, clients, or other strategic partners. 

In fact, I was at an advisory board meeting last week where the CEO of the company shared a few different stories (some personal and some specifically related to the team) which certainly put more colour around many of the agenda items and really helped to ‘highlight the why’ behind a few key scenarios in the business. 

When I had my business, I loved sharing ‘our story’ and talking about the early days of the company and what inspired us to start it. Whether I was speaking to candidates, potential investors, the media, or prospective clients, our story helped create a sense of purpose and identity and demonstrated how our values and mission evolved over time. 

Whenever a leader articulates her vision story, it helps her paint the picture of the future of the organisation, and how the team (or potential investors) can help make it a reality.

Vision stories can help align team members around a common goal by bringing them along the journey and inspiring them to work towards a shared vision. Telling stories can help inspire and motivate team members and demonstrates the impact and value of your team’s or your organisation’s work. 

Having said that, leaders should never shy away from sharing stories of tough times, setbacks, challenges, or (dare I say the word), failures. Sharing the tougher stories can help leaders foster a culture of learning and resilience and demonstrate how the leader and the company have overcome obstacles and grown stronger as a result. 

The stories a leader shares should be authentic, relatable, and appropriate to the audience. 

For example, they should aim to inspire, motivate, and educate team members, and help to create a sense of purpose and shared identity within the organisation. 

What’s interesting here is that the research around story telling highlights that the best story tellers share certain traits that make them effective at capturing and engaging their audience. Traits like authenticity, emotional intelligence, creativity, and empathy. These are some of the exact traits displayed by many of the most successful leaders today. 

So, for any new leader, aspiring leader, or even experienced leader who may not have considered adding storytelling to their bag of tricks, please consider putting it on your to-do list. 

Oh, and for anyone curious, the item I typically bring along to talk about at my workshops is a simple smooth stone that fits easily into the palm of my hand. But there is a very important story behind this particular stone from a life-changing mindfulness course I took part in a few years ago. But that’s definitely a story for another time on the power of resilience and why dealing with setbacks is another important leadership skill. 

Remember Hellomonday provides coaching and support to every leader, prioritising development initiatives that result in long-term sustained learning and change, reinforcing habits through curated learning and impactful coaching, perhaps even helping leaders appreciate why storytelling is an extremely valuable skill for any leader.