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Douglass Hatcher, December 8 2020

Why Leadership Storytelling Matters

Few tools humanize your company, brand, or products more than leadership storytelling. Done well, this key communications tool can breathe new life across your enterprise, creating emotional bonds within your teams as well as with your customers, establishing trust and credibility, and simplifying complex information. In this post, we’ll briefly touch on each of these leadership storytelling benefits.

Leadership Storytelling Creates Bonds

Bonds are not created over numbers and dry, data-ridden presentations. They’re instead born out of shared experiences. No discipline fosters shared experiences better than storytelling. Stories invite audiences to join you in a common journey. And because we’re talking about an invitation and not a requirement, stories fundamentally alter and transform your leadership. 

Antiquated command and control leadership—which is hierarchical and top-down by definition—doesn’t align well with storytelling. What’s needed instead are the properties of leadership storytelling that are more in keeping with a flatter organizational structure. Effective leadership storytelling (1) puts audiences first which requires humility, (2) earns attention through qualities like empathy, and (3) drives action, not by edict or directive, but by inspiration and emotional resonance. This transition in leadership styles transforms storytelling into storyleading. 

Leadership Storytelling Creates Credibility

One of the hallmarks of leadership storytelling is the willingness to share struggles and challenges in a more open, transparent way. Done well, this can be a big competitive advantage in a world where many brands cast themselves in a light that’s positive, positive, positive. You and I both know that doesn’t ring true because it’s simply not how we live our lives. While the characters in Lego Movie II can live in a world where “everything is awesome,” the rest of us live in a world where there are ups and downs—where everything is actually not always awesome. To be clear, when we say share struggles, we’re not talking about over-sharing or having a therapy session with your audience. We’re talking about using struggle strategically. Share but share smartly. Here are some examples—one from a CEO and one from a head of state. 

Marriott CEO Arne Sorenson

This past March, Marriott International posted a video of Marriott CEO Arne Sorenson talking about the range of challenges his company was facing because of the impact of COVID-19. He talked about those challenges in a straightforward, personal, heartfelt way. He even mentioned that he and his team weren’t sure that doing a video so after his cancer treatment was a good idea, especially since he had lost his hair.

After he spoke, the economic havoc that the pandemic was wreaking on Marriott didn’t change. The work that he, his team, and his company faced didn’t go away. But what did change was how the world looked at this global hospitality brand. What did change was how Marriott and its workforce looked at itself. 

The world saw the human face and voice of leadership confronting a tough situation with equal parts grace and grit. In the process, Marriott’s CEO created a sense of shared journey and common humanity. His six minutes of video didn’t change anything but his approach meant everything, not only to all who were connected to Marriott, but also for those who know great leadership when we see it. You’ll see what I mean here:


New Zealand PM Jacinda Ardern

Another example of using struggle strategically can be found in New Zealand PM Jacinda Ardern’s handing of the COVID crisis earlier this year. Despite recent reports of COVID cases plus some civil unrest in Auckland, the basics of leadership storytelling still apply, dating back to the beginning onset of the virus in New Zealand.

On March 18rd, PM Ardern announced a $12.1B relief package before New Zealand's parliament just days before her country went into Level 4 lockdown and self-isolations. But much like Marriott’s CEO, PM Ardern addressed the issue directly, clearly, and above all with humanity. She reminded New Zealanders of the shared journey they had been on. She expressed the urgency of the situation and the need for corrective action without creating panic. She was clear, decisive, and unambiguous. The Prime Minister rallied her nation to a cause she’d rather not have to lead and that her countrymen and women would rather not have to follow. And she did it with uncommon leadership wrapped in refreshing humanity. Here’s how she closed her remarks:  Be strong but be kind. We will be ok.



Leadership Storytelling Strives for Simplicity in Both Communication and Strategy 

One of the greatest gifts a leader can give to those she leads is the gift and example of simplicity. But it’s not easy. Simplifying the complex or the unfamiliar is hard and requires time and commitment. Meeting complex information with complex communication is much easier. So, why go through all the work simplicity requires? Number one, simplicity is efficient. It closes the gap between communication and understanding. Number two, simplicity makes your messages more memorable, repeatable, and doable. And number three, like the effective leadership storytelling that simplicity supports, simplicity places a huge premium on putting the audience first. 

Great storytelling—and the properties that go with it— make for better communication and better leadership. If you’re interested in learning more about leadership storytelling and how it can help create tighter bonds with your audiences, build greater trust and credibility with your stakeholders, and simplify complexity, please reach out to us here at communicate4IMPACT

Written by

Douglass Hatcher

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