Storytelling and Leadership

When some friends and colleagues encouraged me to write my second book, Lessons From the Mouse, I was scared out of mind. What if it turned out that everything I knew had been written in my first book, Unleashing Excellence? What if it turned out that I had nothing left to share?

I was so intimidated by the prospect of writing a second book that I put it off for four years. I talked about the book a lot – I just wasn’t doing anything about it. I came up with every excuse for not writing it; all of which were legitimate excuses. It was my son David who finally got me off my procrastinating butt and got me down to working on the book. He would regularly ask in his teenaged joking (sarcastic) manner, “How’s that new book coming along? Got a big stack of pages done?”

For the sake of my honor I had to get the book written. I decided to rent a cabin in Georgia for a week with the goal of doing nothing but writing. Maybe nothing worthwhile would come of the effort, but I knew the time away would at least tell me if I had anything to write about.

Thank God for wisecracking teenagers who shame you into taking action. Lessons From the Mouse has been well received, and I’m proud of it. What I’m really thankful for, however, is taking the time to sit down and think about my twenty years working at Walt Disney World and what it all means to me.

What happened is this: story after story kept pouring onto the computer screen. I’d start writing about one story and it would remind me of another one. I remembered things I hadn’t thought about since I was a nineteen year old cast member working on Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride. Even more exciting to me was that most of the stories had a learning point that changed me, although I usually didn’t know it at the time.

A week later I left the cabin with a first draft of four of the ten chapters completed. The rest of the book came pretty easily.

Why do I share this? Because stories play such an important role in lives and in organizations. In organizations, stories provide the links that connect an organization’s employees to its history, its purpose, and its values. If you can’t share a bunch of stories about a company value in action, it’s not a value; it’s a wish. Stories validate what we say are our values.

Some of the most effective leaders I’ve met are effective precisely because of their ability to bring an idea or principle to life through a compelling story. They know that while facts and figures are important, stories are what stir the emotions and get people behind an idea. When you share an effective story, things become real. They make YOU real.

I’m not talking about fairy tales here; I’m talking about real life stories that make abstract ideas real. And I’m also not talking about pointless rambling. Effective stories are about something important.

I once observed a training program for a fairly large organization, and the facilitator asked participants to share reasons for being proud of working there. A few participants shared a few somewhat lame reasons, but nothing really exciting was shared. The next segment of the program involved the company’s founder/president sharing some of his thoughts with the team, and, having seen many such presentations, I was ready to watch everyone’s eyes glaze over while he talked about company strategy.

Boy, was I wrong. For some reason he went “off script” and discussed the early days of the organization – how it literally was launched from the trunk of a beat up car. He shared how the company’s future was on the line with every deal and could’ve gone under at any moment. As he spoke, he sometimes just kind of looked off at nothing in particular, clearly reliving some of those early days. It was mesmerizing. When he was done, there was electricity in the room. You could feel the pride. All because of an unplanned story being shared.

I’m sure you’ve experienced the same phenomenon. A company president or executive gets up in front of an audience with a prepared, teleprompter-driven script, and for any number of reasons drifts away from the lectern to tell a story. And everything changes. Suddenly everyone is listening – suddenly the executive is real. (Remember, I’m not talking about rambling, I’m talking about stories that matter).

I encourage you to take some time to do the same thing I did during my time away in that Georgia cabin. Reflect on your own life and career, and recall the stories that are important to you, making you who you are today. Write them down. If you’re not writing a book, the stories don’t have to be grammatically correct or even complete. But writing your stories down in some form has the magical effect of connecting the dots of your life and, trust me on this, will either conjure up memories buried long ago, or will bring importance to events you thought had no importance at all.

I also encourage you to look for stories all around you that can help you as a leader. Look for examples of values in action, or lack of values in action. Listen to stories shared by customers and employees. Stories are everywhere.

Here’s a question (really two questions) to get you started with mining your memory for stories and being on the lookout for fresh ones: What’s important to you and why? Just start with three things that are important to you and WHY they’re important. Then, come up with stories that bring your answers to life. If these things are truly important to you, there will definitely be stories. These stories, when used purposefully, will make you more effective as a leader and as a communicator (which may be the same thing). These are the stories that can convince, persuade, motivate, and electrify others.

This is a subject that excites me just writing about it, and I wanted to get it posted. But I’m not done. I’m going to do some research on resources that will help you craft more effective stories. But don’t overanalyze the process. The most important part of any story is its authenticity – its heart. The resources I’ll share only serve to make your stories even more powerful.

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