22 Sep Storytelling-An Essential Tool for Leaders
Jewish writer and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel once said that “we become the stories we tell.” Having worked with some of the best companies in the world on building great corporate cultures, I believe that the best organizations consistently use stories to drive culture. In fact, the ability to tell compelling stories is one of the most effective leadership skills.
Storytelling Reinforces Culture
Take Westjet for example—one of the most profitable airlines in the world with a renowned reputation for stellar service. I recently attended a session they conduct several times each year that’s aimed at reinforcing their culture of service and ownership. At the center of the events, Westjetters (as they call themselves) recount stories of when they have seen the Westjet spirit in action. Stories of outstanding service are regularly collected by leaders and spread widely throughout the company.
Effective Leadership Skills Development
Another client of mine regularly invites executives to their leadership training sessions to tell their “personal leadership story.” The executives cite stories of how they became a leader, the key people who influenced them, and how they learned the most valuable lessons of their career. These talks are extremely popular because people want to understand what makes influential individuals tick. It makes leaders more real, more approachable and ultimately builds credibility while developing effective leadership skills.
Stories Drive Culture
Creating “space” for stories is also a powerful driver of culture. Before every shift at the Ritz-Carlton, every department has a short meeting called the “lineup.” One of the key elements of those daily meetings is the opportunity for associates to tell a “wow” story—one way their department provided exceptional service in the last 24 hours. Not surprisingly, the Ritz Carton chain has earned a reputation for impeccable service. By creating space to tell stories of when we are at our best, we inspire others to take action to step up their game. Just as Wiesel said, “we become the stories we tell.”
People Centered Leadership
In our program, People Centered Leadership, we have an entire module on storytelling because we believe that leaders need more training on how to use stories to drive culture. There are essentially three types of stories leaders can use. The first is the “this is what we stand for story”—about how we lived up to our values or what we are trying to be as a company. The second is “this is who I am story” in which a leader tells a story about their own career or life that illustrates an important lesson. The third is “this is like us story.” An example of this is when the CEO of Pepsi told the story about a worker who had jumped off a burning oil rig in the North Sea. When asked why he took that risk the worker said, “Because I looked at a wall of fire and saw certain death and looked at the sea and saw possible death.” Not only did that story serve as a powerful metaphor to galvanize Craig Weatherup’s organization, it also became known in business circles as the “burning platform.”
Organizations and leaders need to be very intentional about the stories they tell but they also need to create space for people to tell their own stories. One of the wonderful things about a good story is that it can be told over and over again. Have you ever noticed that children want to hear the same bedtime stories over and over? It’s because good stories never grow old.
Next time you have a meeting or event, weave stories into the agenda. You just might find it will not only enhance your personal leadership brand and your effective leadership skills, but will also make a huge difference in driving culture.