Leading Through Story: How Great Business Leaders Use Narrative to Inspire and Lead Others

A woman gives a visual presentation to colleagues.

If you feel a deep calling to lead others, you’ve surely asked yourself this question: what is it that separates great leaders from everyone else? If you’ve Googled it, read a slew of books on leadership, and even sat patiently at the feet of accomplished leaders you know personally, you’ve probably come across some fantastic, absolutely critical insights that are necessary to being a great leader. If so, hopefully you’ve come across this critical piece of being a great leader.


That’s right. The ability to cast a narrative for your employees and customers — one that reveals where the organization currently is, where it’s come from, and where it plans to go. It might seem simple to tell a great story about your organization as a leader, but it’s not as easy as it sounds.

Telling a Great Story

The ability to capture people’s imagination in an authentic, meaningful, and powerful way requires skill, intuition, and creativity. It requires a deep understanding of your audience. What are your audience’s cultural perspectives and deep-seated values? Where do they draw their sense of purpose and worth? And why, ultimately, does the story being told matter to them? If the answer is a simple as, “because it pays their salary,” the story is quite far from being a great one. If you want to be a great leader, you need to learn to tell great stories.

Who are you called to be?


Leadership vs. Management

Leadership and management are closely intertwined. Leaders must manage and managers, at least the better ones, can lead to some extent. However, the difference is that management is usually about maintaining or “managing” the status quo of an organization; it’s the art of meeting objectives by managing resources. Managers may have authority over vast amounts of people and resources, yet if they’re essentially charged with keeping things running smoothly by planning, organizing, and overseeing assets to meet prescribed goals, that’s not leadership.

Leadership is about change. It’s about seeing tomorrow and taking people there. If management is about maintaining the status quo, leadership is about changing it.

LEADER: /‘le-der/ a specific person who does specific things in a specific setting to bring about change. If the person in charge is not ultimately change- focused, then they are simply “managing.”

Six Major Attributes of Every Great Leader

Before we get into the power of storytelling as a leader, it is important to understand that merely being a great storyteller does not equip you to be a great leader. Like any other profession — from cardiovascular surgeons to professional athletes — effective leaders must acquire and exhibit other highly developed skills. Dr. Bruce Schooling, who teaches organizational leadership at ¹ú²ú¾çÂ鶹¾ç’s Fermanian School of Business, details some of the major attributes every great leader needs to possess and develop.

1. Vision

Having vision entails the ability to concretely imagine a better tomorrow based on what you know today. It involves seeing what needs to be done now to instill positive change and doing it.

Let’s recall Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s epochal “I Have A Dream” speech. He envisioned a radically different future than many before him.

Dr. King had a grand vision, but then set about making it a reality despite great risks and personal sacrifice.

He envisioned a nation whose children are not “judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character,” one where “we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.” Before walls of intolerance could be razed, Dr. King harbored a poetic vision for a new tomorrow.

Of course, many can dream up a “better” future, but having vision is tethered to reality as opposed to an erratic romanticism or sentimentalism. And still, this is not enough. Many people can envision a better future, even one that’s realistic, yet not everyone can take the necessary steps to ensure that vision comes to fruition. Dr. King had a grand vision, but then set about making it a reality despite great risks and personal sacrifice.

2. Risk-Taking

Risk-taking is a popular buzzword that’s bandied about often in the business world. If you want to be successful, you have to learn to play nicely with risk. In a world that’s susceptible to drastic changes, coupled with the unavoidable lack of certainty inherent in life, great leaders need to be willing to take calculated risks. Although “gut feelings” and intuition play a part, great leaders must always ground such risks on reason and common sense. A good “risk-taker” is someone who has sufficient reasons for taking a leap of faith in the first place combined with intuition accrued from past experience and knowledge.

3. Sense of Purpose

Great leaders have an undeniable sense of purpose and commitment to what they’re doing.

Viktor Frankl was an Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist who published a deeply illuminating book, Man’s Search for Meaning. In it, he recounts his experience as a Holocaust prisoner. What he discovered during this horrific stint of his life was that the prisoners who found a sense of meaning to their lives fared much better than those who did not. In his own experience, his will to stay alive due to the love he had for his wife — despite not knowing if she was still alive — gave him a sense of meaning and purpose that couldn’t be stripped. As he explains in his book, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

“Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.”
— Winston Churchill

Similarly, great leaders believe their vision of the future is worth implementing — worth it enough to sacrifice, take risks, and do everything in their power to make it materialize. As Churchill said, “success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.” Great leaders don’t lose enthusiasm for the mission of their organization no matter how grave the obstacles because of their abiding sense of purpose.

4. Base of Power

There are two types of power. The first type stems from legitimate authority that is given. This refers to individuals who have the power to hire, fire, and set priorities over a group of people. The second type involves expertise or respect granted to someone implicitly, which may be called referential power. This refers to individuals who have power because members of the organization deeply trust them and are willing to follow their lead.

The best type of power is a combination of these two, when leaders have legitimate power to make key decisions and they have convinced others through confidence, character, and expertise that their decisions can be trusted and supported.

5. Presence

We all know of people who have that intangible something that draws attention, confidence, and respect. We might call it charm, charisma, or magnetism. Whatever it is, many great leaders have what can be called a presence — a natural self-assertion that can’t be overlooked. It seems to come more easily to some than others, but there are even small ways that someone can develop a stronger presence.

Clothes, posture, eye contact, voice, and mannerisms are some of the simple ways a strong presence can manifest. But true presence, though marked by attention or perception in others’ minds, is not born of excessive concern for superficial appearances. Rather, it flows from a confidence that is palpable to everyone in the room. In an article in The Washington Post, “How to Develop Your Presence,” Muriel Maignan Wilkins, co-author of Own the Room: Discover Your Signature Voice to Master Your Leadership Presence, highlights three major aspects of leadership presence: “the assumptions that you bring to every situation, the communication skills that you use and the physical aspects of your presence.” Bringing all three to the fore in a leader results in a strong presence.

6. Emotional Quotient

Although all the aforementioned attributes are needed to be a great leader, you especially need to have a strong emotional quotient (EQ). In fact, author, psychologist, and science journalist Daniel Goleman has said that the level of EQ is at least twice as important as the level of IQ. Your emotional quotient involves what you know about yourself, how you control yourself based on your understanding of your world, how empathic and in tune you are to other people’s feelings, and how you understand your motivations and the reasons behind them.

Having a strong EQ enables you to lead, counsel, instruct, and empower others.

Now that we’ve established some of the attributes needed to be a great leader, let’s turn our attention to the importance of storytelling.

The Role of Stories 

In an article in the Harvard Business Review, “Storytelling That Moves People,” Bronwyn Fryer defines what all great storytellers have in common: “All great storytellers since the dawn of time — from the ancient Greeks through Shakespeare and up to the present day — have dealt with this fundamental conflict between subjective expectation and cruel reality.”

Stories can reveal truth by resonating with our emotions, values, and sense of purpose.

The power of stories is woven into the fabric of every culture throughout history. Stories, unlike lectures, orations, and speeches, can tap deeply into the human spirit. Stories can reveal truth by resonating with our emotions, values, and sense of purpose. That’s why we remember rules and lessons best when we’re told them in the form of a story.

Think of fairy tales and their ability to convey an important truth to children. Parents could have lectured their children on the dangers of wandering into the woods at night to avoid wolves, and although they surely did, the image of a little girl draped in red meandering through a dark and eerie forest could more easily tap into a child’s imagination and communicate that very same truth or lesson in a much more powerful, and in some cases, haunting way.

Authors B. Kaye and B. Jacobson in their book, True Tales and Tall Tales: The Power of Organizational Storytelling, invite us to recall how we first learned about a camel and its behavior. Was it Rudyard Kipling’s poem, How the “Camel Got His Hump?” Or maybe we learned it from Johnny Gruelle and Kees Moerbeek’s children’s book, Raggedy Ann and Andy and the Camel with the Wrinkled Knees. As children, many of us probably had little opinion of camels, yet through narrative we came to know them as stubborn and flat-footed, as having peculiar humps and a rude habit of spitting.

Steve Jobs, the controversial and mythic founder of Apple, Inc., was a master storyteller. Of course, he had many of the other attributes any great leader needs — intelligence, vision, determination, and a willingness to take risks, among others — but what he could do better than most was cast a narrative that captivated an audience. When audiences looked out from their shadowed seats at Jobs standing on a bright stage, they didn’t see the CEO of a Fortune 500 company. They saw an artist, a visionary, a storyteller. They saw a man donned in neat black turtleneck telling a story about humanity — about how technology has the power to lift humanity to unimaginable heights.

Apple has continued to cast this vision successfully, often expressing the wonder of humanity in perfect unison with the gift of technology. The story Jobs told his customers was the same story he told to his organization. They weren’t building computers and music players. They were creating the beautiful fruit of technological progress that would power humanity into a more utopian future.

By winning the hearts and minds of others, Jobs was able to take a marginalized and forgotten company and transform it into one of the most popular and successful brands of all time.

The Power of Stories

There are many examples that reveal the power of stories. In fact, research has shown that good storytelling can empower others to overcome major obstacles despite great fear and difficulty.

A few years ago, a Fast Company article, “Change or Die,” discussed the sobering findings of Dr. Edward Miller, the dean of the medical school and CEO of the hospital at Johns Hopkins University, which reported that 90% of people who have had coronary-artery bypass grafting surgery due to heart disease resume their former unhealthy lifestyle after two years. This means even though these people know what they’re doing may literally kill them, they’re unable to significantly change their lives.

“If you can harness imagination and the principles of a well-told story, then you get people rising to their feet amid thunderous applause instead of yawning and ignoring you.”
— Bronwyn Fryer

This is shocking, as even the fear of death or terrible suffering lacks the urgency to cause the majority of people to change.

However, Dr. Dean Ornish, a professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, realized there are ways to reverse this discouraging trend. He believes we can’t simply state facts, but need to access “the psychological, emotional, and spiritual dimensions that are so often ignored.”

Ornish has had success getting patients to maintain long-term lifestyle changes through, essentially, changing the story his patients focus on. Instead of merely relating to his patients the facts of their disease and situation, he has his patients focus on positive change — on living in a way that focuses on the benefits of living a healthy lifestyle. He has them focus on the joy, sense of hope, and better capacity for relationships that can result from a lifestyle change, instead of the avoidance of death or pain. If patients use their imaginations to envision a healthy future for themselves, that future is much more likely to materialize.

Of course, what makes framing change effective is that it focuses on a positive future without ignoring the reality of present obstacles. Great stories are filled with hope, but they still exist within the backdrop of reality. Great leaders who tap into people’s emotions and inspire them through stories not only win people on the side of their organization’s mission, but create a strong culture that can endure the inevitable challenges and hardships that will beset every organization.

George Lakoff, a professor of cognitive science and linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley, defines frames as the “mental structures that shape the way we see the world.” These mental structures are difficult to change, which is why facts and information can often fail to make any lasting changes. However, these deep- rooted structures can be changed through a simple and positive narrative that invites people to relate to their world and experiences in a different way.

Stories that captivate emotion and hope can literally change the way our brains process the world.

Referring back to Fryer’s quote that good narratives draw on the “fundamental conflict between subjective expectation and cruel reality,” leaders must not only cast a vision of a better tomorrow, but be honest about the difficulty of getting there today. This requires painting an image based on firm hope as opposed to naive optimism, for there is never any guarantee no matter how effective or promising leaders are that their visions will materialize.

This is the way of the world. But by calling attention to this truth, great leaders encourage members of their organization to enter into a “great drama” and consequently begin assuming the role of a hero.

Gigi Stetler, the very successful businesswoman and author of Unstoppable: Surviving Is Just the Beginning, endured extremely difficult obstacles before achieving her dreams. She was a single mother who didn’t complete high school, and she was also brutally stabbed and left for dead. Despite such harrowing obstacles, she not only survived, but went on to be successful in a male-dominated industry by becoming the sole proprietor of an RV dealership. As she recounts, “It was very early on in my life that I had to come across hurdles. It was sink or swim, and sinking wasn’t an option.” Stetler assumed the role of a hero, of someone committed to fulfilling her dream no matter the obstacles.

“The story of narrative we tell must touch people at the emotional level, not just the factual level. It is through the emotions that people grasp and react.”
— Dr. Bruce Schooling

Maya Angelou, the American writer and civil rights activist who also endured serious obstacles before becoming a Pulitzer Prize-nominated poet, had this to say about overcoming obstacles:

“You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated. In fact, it may be necessary to encounter the defeats, so you can know who you are, what you can rise from, how you can still come out of it.”

Both these storytellers entered fully into the great drama of human life, and despite the tremendous difficulties they endured, found success through their deep commitment to their vision — to the story they wished to embody and share with the world.

Every good story has conflict, but by shedding light on that conflict, it allows the opportunity for both leaders and those they lead to enter into the narrative and strive to be victorious within it.

The Necessary Characteristics of A Great Story

Now that we’ve covered the power and purpose of great stories, it’s time to look at the necessary characteristics of your story that will enable you to lead.

Noble and Meaningful

Leaders must tell a story about their organization directed at a meaningful and worthy end to make an emotional connection with their audience.

Stories work on both the mind and the heart, which is why the narrative must always be told in a positive direction — in a manner that draws the audience into a vision of a more positive and purposeful future. This is why countless people are drawn to the story of Frodo and the rest of the fellowship struggling to destroy the one ring in The Lord of the Rings, or the rebels standing up to the tyrannical might of the empire in Star Wars.

The goal and reason for the story is nothing short of changing the world for the better.

Of course, for the majority of leaders, the scope of their narrative may not be as grand and all-encompassing as literally saving the world (or the galaxy), but it still has to be noble and resonate with the audience.

GoPro is a great example of an organization with a noble and meaningful mission: to help people capture and share their most meaningful experiences. It successfully cast a narrative with the aim of empowering others to explore and share their world. In this way, both employees and customers of the organization can envision themselves as participatory heroes since they’re pursuing what they deem to be a noble and meaningful goal.

Clear and Authentic

For a leader’s story to be successful, it must clearly communicate to others the organization’s core identity and what it’s striving to become. This provides the invitation for others to determine if the organization’s essence and mission align with something they personally want to partake in.

Of course, the story must also be based in authenticity and truth.

Leaders who speak of their organizations as having integrity, but fail to conduct business accordingly, won’t convince anyone. Part of what makes a story effective in the minds and hearts of others is that the mission is true and resonates with them. Truth must sit at the heart of any great story.

Broad and Adaptable

A story has to be agile enough to live and breathe in several different forms. The narrative doesn’t simply unfold over the course of a speech or press release; it’s much more nuanced and permeating. It has to be told in part during meetings, at lunch with clients, over coffee in a breakroom.

The story has to become a natural expression of the organization.

Otherwise, the story either isn’t true or isn’t compelling. Great leaders know when and how to share the different aspects of a larger narrative.

MailChimp, the email marketing company, represents the idea of broad and adaptable storytelling very well. The quirky, creative organization seeks to help small businesses grow and flourish. This narrative and mission to help nurture creative and ambitious organizations takes form in various aspects at MailChimp. From having all its employees participate in MailChimp University to better their professional communication and leadership skills to supporting local art organizations in Atlanta and helping alleviate intergenerational poverty through organizations like Literacy Action, MailChimp tells the same story of finding creative ways to help organizations and people flourish in varied ways.

Consistent and Expansive

Although aspects of the story may change due to fluctuating circumstances, the crux of the story must remain the same.

There should be a consistency — an underpinning message that crystallizes in the minds and hearts of listeners so there’s no doubt about what the leader is saying and inviting others to participate in.

In True Tales and Tall Tales: The Power of Organizational Storytelling, authors Kaye and Jacobson remind us of the natural progression of understanding that unfolds when telling stories. There is the storyteller and there is the audience. As the story is told, both the storyteller and the audience begin to acquire a deeper understanding of what was perhaps only superficially known at first. This results in a shared understanding of meaning that allows them to feel more personally connected to the story. As the audience hears the story, they begin participating in it, and as the leader witnesses this, he or she begins to see the story in greater clarity.

Both the leader and the audience over time contribute to this expansive and grand narrative.

How Will Your Story End?

There are lots of attributes that make for a good leader, but the truly great ones use these attributes within the framework of a meaningful and compelling story to share with others. By changing tomorrow for the better, great leaders must rely on what we’ve always known since we were children — well-told stories are the key to reaching the human heart and mind.

Of course, becoming a great leader does not happen overnight. It takes time, experience, and education to become a great business leader who can not only run an organization well from a technical standpoint, but can incorporate the attributes discussed above — especially storytelling — in a way that leads to true and meaningful change.