Almost everything we feel, everything we think and everything we do is influenced by the stories we tell ourselves and others. We share our experiences, exchange information and inspire creativity through storytelling. In fact, I would argue that it is humans’ ability to tell stories – from prehistoric cave paintings to the multimedia world of today – that has enabled our success as a species.  Perhaps not surprisingly then, it is also the secret of great leadership.

I was reminded once again of the incredible power of stories when I recently reflected on my several trips to the theatre last year. Bearing in mind that I’m not usually one for straight drama (musicals are normally my ‘thing’), in the past twelve months I’ve seen four or five plays in the West End that have made an enormous impact on me.

Each of these theatre experiences made me realise that a great play has an almost magical power to influence its audience. We are drawn into the story on stage, enabling us to inhabit someone else’s life for a couple of hours. In that short time we view the world through a different lens and a new light is shone on human behaviour. Although all very different, each play I saw left its lasting legacy by challenging my perceptions and inspiring me to think deeply about myself and gain valuable insights. It’s true to say that each play changed me.

Storytelling in leadership

To be a great leader we don’t need to be Jody Comer, David Tennant or Harold Pinter, but we do need to understand how important it is that we use storytelling to effect change, influence behaviour and inspire others.

As I experienced at the theatre, when people are immersed in a story their attention is wholly captured, they’re more open to ideas and they can visualise a different reality. The poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote of the “willing suspension of disbelief” as a prerequisite for appreciating imaginative literature and it is this sense of making the extraordinary possible that is just as important in business as in the arts.

Think about some of the great leaders who have not just envisioned but actually created new technologies, life-changing products and scientific breakthroughs. Each one told a story to their teams, to their customers, that helped to change the world:

“We’re going to put a man on the moon.”

“We’re going to give this patient a new heart”

“We’re going to build a supercomputer that will fit in your pocket”

Agent of change

Leadership is, at heart, all about change. Whether we’re trying to inspire our customers to change behaviour (buying more or better), our team to change (to be more innovative, more productive), or bring about change in ourselves, this change can only happen through insight. Yet insight – a sight from within – is an exclusively personal, individual experience and, however much we might like to believe otherwise, we cannot impel others to change or force an insight upon them.

As leaders our power to influence lies in our storytelling ability. I believe that through sharing our experiences and inviting others to see themselves in our stories, insight and change become inevitable.

If you need help developing your storytelling or leadership skills, please get in touch.

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