Storytelling As a Leadership Tool



If you have read some of the earlier articles on this website, you know that I am an advocate of using stories to perpetuate the culture of your organization. The advice to make use of storytelling has been buried in the previous articles and I feel that the subject merits its own discussion.

In communicating a point of view, a principle, or a value, there are few techniques more powerful than a well-told story. A story provides a "mind picture" for the listener and gives color to an otherwise abstract concept. As a leader, for example, I could advise new supervisors to "treat employees with respect." No one could argue with such a suggestion. The following story, however, gives meaning to the principle. I've used this story hundreds of times because it happened to me (in 1982), had an impact on my leadership style, and others have told me that the story has had an impact on them.

I had recently been promoted to my first management position at Walt Disney World; Supervisor of Fantasyland (my all-time favorite job title). I was preparing to give my first "verbal reprimand" to an employee and I was actually excited about it. Finally, I was giving a reprimand instead of getting a reprimand. I was mentally rehearsing what I was going to say to this cast member regarding his poor attendance. It was going to be a verbal bombardment designed to get him to beg forgiveness and to be ashamed of his irresponsibility. Moments before the cast member was to arrive at my office, my boss, a wonderful leader named Bruce Fox, sat down in the chair across from me. He looked at me and said something that I have never forgotten. He said; "Dennis, no matter what you have to do as a leader, whether you have to reprimand someone or even fire someone, when he walks out of the door you make sure he walks out with his dignity." Bruce's words not only changed how I handled that situation, but how I've tried to conduct myself as a leader ever since.

Admittedly, telling the above story takes longer than saying, "treat employees with respect" but I think the point is much more vivid. Stories allow people to peak behind the curtain of things that have happened to you as a leader, to the company, and to others in the organization.

Another example comes from Southwest Airlines. "Don't take yourself too seriously! Have some fun!" Hundreds of organizations say the same thing. Southwest Airlines, however, has a story that they share that demonstrates commitment to fun from the very top of the organization. The airline was in a legal battle with another company regarding the rights to a marketing slogan. Southwest CEO Herb Kelleher and the CEO of the other company decided to settle the matter by holding an arm wrestling match dubbed, "Malice In Dallas." The event had all the trappings of a WWF wrestling match, complete with trash talking, cheating, and hoopla. The winner would get the rights to the slogan and the loser would donate $15,000 to charity. Everyone had a lot of fun, charities received $15,000, and it was agreed that both companies could use the marketing slogan. Kelleher was carried out of the event on a stretcher complaining that he had lost because he had earlier hurt his arm trying to save a little girl from being hit by a bus, had over exerted himself walking up a flight of stairs, and had a case of athletes foot. This is a CEO that believes in not taking himself too seriously! Southwest loves to tell that story.

As a leader, you can use stories in just about any situation. Here are three very appropriate opportunities for using stories:

Celebration/Recognition - How many times have we heard a leader say, "The whole team came together on this one. Congratulations to everyone!"? Well, that's nice, but so what? I'd like to hear some stories about how the team came together and how they overcame the challenges thrown their way. And maybe some inside stories from team members. I'm much more likely to be engaged in the celebration when there is some real emotion involved. Let's hear the story!

Change/Challenges - The business landscape changes faster than most of us can keep up with. All of these changes cause frustration and skepticism regarding the flood of new initiatives that keep coming down the pike. While stories don't eliminate the frustrations, stories can help illuminate the reason the change is happening. Using a specific customer experience to illustrate the need for change can help employees picture what is happening and, more importantly, what needs to happen.

Training - We have all sat through boring training classes in which an instructor or leader recites a bunch of policies and procedures. Our eyes glass over and while we've "been told," we don't really understand. Stories of employees doing an exceptional job and stories of the results of exceptional work bring the training to life.

We all have thousands of experiences that can provide the foundation for stories that help perpetuate an idea, concept, or culture. You simply have to think about those things that have had an impact on you, a customer, or an employee. Am I saying that it is important for you to become a good storyteller? Yes. However, good storytellers were poor storytellers first. Good storytellers got to be good by telling stories. That's really the only way to get good at it. I can tell you that a good story for business has three components; the setup, the story itself, and the point. The setup tells the listener why you are telling the story. The setup doesn't give away the ending, but it lets the listener know that the story is about having fun, or the importance of providing good service, etc. The story itself is exactly that and it will get better each time you tell it. The point tells the listener about the lesson the story illustrates. The reprimand story noted earlier, for example, provides the foundation for a discussion on methods for maintaining the dignity of an employee while taking corrective action.

It is very satisfying to hear a story that you have told repeated by others. The re-telling may bear little resemblance to the original, but that's okay. Sometimes a story takes on a life of its own. Sometimes a story becomes part of the folklore of the organization. That's how cultures are perpetuated, and that is the point.

About the Author
Dennis Snow is the president of Snow & Associates, Inc. Dennis worked with the Walt Disney World Company for twenty years and now consults with organizations around the world, helping them achieve their customer service goals. He is the author of "Unleashing Excellence: The Complete Guide to Ultimate Customer Service" and "Lessons From the Mouse: A Guide for Applying Disney World's Secrets of Success to Your Organization, Your Career, and Your Life." You can reach Dennis at (407) 294-1855 or visit his website at www.snowassociates.com.
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