5 Types of Stories Leaders Need to Tell


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As I had mentioned in my blog post yesterday, stories are a medium to transmit ideas. As leaders, it is one of our most fundamental responsibilities to transmit ideas to those who follow us. The objective of the transmission of ideas may be different but the best medium remains stories.

So, if we really want to get better as leaders and become leaders worth following, we need to get really good at telling stories. The kind of stories vary depending upon our objective with the stories. There are 5 kinds of stories that in my experience, we need to be able to tell to become leaders worth following:

1. Stories to Inspire

One of the primary responsibility of a leader is to paint a vision of where we are going towards. Some leaders use numbers and data to share the vision. While one can be compelling and memorable with numbers and data, most of us don’t have the emotional connect with data.

For us to remember and be moved or inspired enough to follow a leader to be willing to not only follow them but do so believing that the path illuminated by the leader is the right path for us, our emotional state needs to be changed and charged. This can only happen when we are able to build an emotional connection with them and stories are capable of doing that.

The stories to inspire are usually comprised of the following elements: Our current state of affairs; why that is not acceptable; what other alternative do we have (our vision); why we need to go achieve this vision and why not taking action to change the status quo is not acceptable. One of the best example of this kind of speech is Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech.

2. Stories to Connect

This is the kind of stories that help us connect with the people we are telling the story to. These stories are personal and reveal our character. These stories help our audience to form a mental model of what kind of a person we are and what can they expect from us.

These stories are best told at the beginning of an important relationship. They set a bar for the expectations they can have from us. We need to be careful about these as we need to at least be able to live up to the expectations we create if not exceed those expectations.

Typically, these stories are all about a situation that we found ourselves in and how we responded to the situation to come out better than when we encountered the situation. Typical structure is as follows – Once I was … and then … (this happened)… I felt …… This …… is what I did because I believe ….. And this is what I learnt from the incident. The best examples of such speeches are acceptance speeches.

3. Stories to Align

One important thing we need to do is to set expectations and get everyone to align to these expectations. This is how we curate the culture of our teams. These are pretty simple stories which are primarily follow the structure – People like us do things like this.

These stories are usually over the top, just to make a point. These stories have someone like our audience as the hero and would be about how this hero acts (how we want our teams to act) in varying situations that our audience might find themselves.

The best examples I can think of such stories is the legends passed on about how an employee at a retailer obsessed with customer delight, once refunded the purchase of a tyre, even when the retailer never carried tyres in their store ever. Over the top with the clear message that we can go to extreme lengths to delight our customers.

4. Stories to Teach

Then there are teachable moments that we encounter in our daily interactions with our team. Now, teaching them through the medium of a powerful story can help the teaching becoming etched in the memory forever.

So, the best ways to teach someone is to make the teaching emotionally relevant for the students. You could tell the story of how you learnt something that you are trying to teach. Alternately, you can also ask the students to tell you the story of what they are learning, why they are learning it and how will it benefit them.

The best examples of these stories come out when we are in a mentoring session. Someone is facing a specific challenge and needs help. As a mentor you have two choices – you give the answer or you tell them a story from your life about a time when you faced a similar challenge and how you dealt with it. Then you allow them to make the inference from the story about what is relevant for them.

5. Stories to Energise

The last kind of stories that we need to tell are stories to energise our teams to stretch themselves when they are already stretched to their limits or to wake them up from their slumbers and act with urgency.

These stories are usually about why is there a need for urgency and speed and agility. They focus on how each one of us will be affected negatively if we did not move and do so quickly. These types of stories could be about a time when we needed to have acted quickly and decisively but did not and what that resulted in.

Best examples of these kinds of stories are what leaders call “Burning platform” call. The leaders of once a dominant force want to mobilise their people with a clear call out of the demise of the organisation if something is not done and done quickly.

In this case, we need to be extremely clear on what we want them to do and how quickly they need to act. All political upheavals or social revolutions start with a story like this (Including Rosa Park’s Bus story or the Dandi March by Mahatma Gandhi).

In conclusion

When I talk about this with leaders, the first question they ask is where can they find all these kinds of stories and they can’t just have one story to tell all the time. So, where will the continuous source of stories come from.

There are stories all around us. We are living in multiple stories – ours, theirs and everyone who comes in contact with us. We just need to be conscious about wanting to collect these stories that play out in our lives.

Another source is newspapers, books or other people’s stories. Another example is from history books or mythology. Stories are about. All we need is the eye to notice one and capture it somewhere. So, that we can pull one out as and when we need one.

Of course there are nuances in how we tell the story. We are getting ahead of ourselves. I will talk about these nuances in another post shortly. Until then, let’s collect and build a treasure trove of stories that we can tell, by using our natural ability to tell stories.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Mukesh Gupta
I currently work for SAP as Customer advocate. In this capacity, I am responsible to ensure that the voice of the customer is being heard and play the bridge between customers and SAP. Prior to joining SAP, I have worked with different organizations serving in different functions like customer service, logistics, production planning & sales, marketing and business development functions. I was also the founder-CEO of a start-up called "Innovative Enterprises". The venture was in the retail & distribution business. I blog at http://rmukeshgupta.com.


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