The Power Of Story

Stories are the creative conversion of life itself into a more powerful, clearer, more meaningful experience. They are the currency of human contact. ~Robert McKee

My dad had a very dear friend, a man named Bob who loved all things outdoors, especially fishing for the monster Northern Pike lurking in waters north of the US border. Bob was a great fisherman with an uncanny ability to almost always land the biggest fish even when his declining health meant he mostly sat in the boat telling stories. Bob was also a master storyteller able to recount decades-old adventures in exquisite detail making them come alive for the lucky listener.

Richard (Dad)

Never did I appreciate Bob’s ability to tell a story more than on the last two fishing trips I shared with him. Both of these trips were taken after my dad had died. As we drove together and fished together, Bob told story after story, told most of his stories then told them again and again and again. Some grew frustrated at the continual repetition of the stories. I never did.

Bob, through his stories, kept my dad alive for me when he reminded me of tales I once knew but had faded and regaled me with tales I heard for the first time. Both the old and new stories gave me insights into my dad’s life. It was almost like my dad was fishing with us just in another boat on the other side of the lake. Bob, through his stories, passed an invaluable legacy to me, to my brothers, and to my son, a grandson who adored his grandfather and was lucky enough to have fished the great Canadian waters with him.

Stories are powerful. They connect us viscerally with a place in time, with an idea or, most importantly, to other humans. They can be used to teach, to persuade, to change hearts. Some studies say stories are 22 times more memorable than straight facts alone.

The story of Rosa Parks gave tangible life to the plight of the America’s Blacks in the 1950s. Martin Luther King used her story to rally the people of Montgomery, Alabama into an effective, boycotting coalition. Her story drew Northern whites into the struggle, many who were blissfully ignorant of the struggles in the South, as allies to the cause.

As leaders, we need to develop the ability to tell stories. We don’t have to be master storytellers like Bob but we do need to be able to tell a story with enough skill to create a bridge connecting people with people, connecting people with a vision of a better tomorrow.

According to John Maxwell, people buy into the leader before buying into the vision. To buy into the leader, the people need to feel a connection with the leader. To develop the connection, the leader must both tell his own story and listen to the stories of others. Yes, listening to other’s stories is as important as being able to tell stories. Once the connection between the leader and follower is established, story can then be used to rally to a cause.

As a leader, I strive to include people in an endeavor such that they can use current skills, stretch their skills, or grow new skills. When people ask why I have this belief, I could tell them that I think people are important but that doesn’t touch why inclusion is fundamental to my leaderhip style. So, I tell this story.

When I was in 5th grade, I played American football for my grammar school. I practiced with the team every evening never missing a practice the entire season. I practiced with them in the heat, in the cold, in swarms of mosquitoes and the smelly fogger spitting chemicals to kill the mosquitoes. I did the push-ups, the situps, the sprints, and ran the practice plays. I practiced through the emotional pain of being called ‘a Sally’ because I wasn’t hitting the tackling dummy hard enough to suit the coaches.

I put in all the effort requested of me yet was only involved in one play the entire season and that during the very last game. Our team lost every game, most by wide margins so putting me in a couple of plays per game, perhaps the kicking and receiving teams, would not have changed the outcome of the game. However, it would have been huge in the development of at least one individual.

I was so emotionally devastated by the experience, I quit playing organized sports altogether despite living and breathing sports. I also vowed, if I was ever a coach, I would never treat anyone so inhumanely. As an adult, I coached youth soccer for fourteen years and made sure every one of my players played at least half of every game no matter if it was a regular season game or the championship game.

What I hope this story conveys is that inclusion is a core belief and not just something I do when convenient. I don’t tell them this conclusion. If the story is done right, it’s a conclusion they will come to of their own accord.

Here are a couple of resources to help improve this vital leadership skill: Ted Talk: The Clues to a Great Story and HBR: How to Tell A Good Story

What stories do you have that can improve your effectiveness as a leader?

Author: David A Olson

I often find my mind wandering to various subjects, subjects that make me stop and think. The blog, Musings of a Middle Aged Man, is a catalog of those thoughts I muse upon as I search for significance in life. I am the father of 3 children and the grandfather to 2. I spend my days working for a medium sized multinational corporation where I am an Agile Coach. I view myself as a Servant Leader, have a passion for leadership, particularly, in helping people develop their individual leadership skills and abilities. In October 2012, I went to India on business. After a week of being there, I still had not talked to or texted my 7-year-old grandson. He asked his mom, "Is Papa dead? He hasn't texted me all week." To facilitate communication now that he and I no longer live together, I started a blog for us to communicate. It's titled, "Correspondence Between Luke and His Papi". In April 2013, I moved to Pune, India on an 18-month delegation. It's an adventure that was 1.5 years in the making...The experience is captured on my blog, "The Adventures of an American Living Abroad" My two latest blogs are "The Learning Leader", a topic I have been studying since 1990, and "Lipstick on a Pig", a foray into the fashion sense of this middle aged man.

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