The Power of Storytelling for Leaders

By: Cristina Jimenez

We often do an exercise with leaders called Moments that Matter. It’s simple and yet remarkably powerful in shifting how people interact with one another. Throughout the experience, leaders have an opportunity to do two things. First, they take the time to reflect on their lives in a way that makes them pause and ask: Who am I? Why am I this way? In a world where the opportunity to connect with who we are is limited, it is a lovely reminder that there are reasons why we get up every day and reasons why we lead and engage with others the way we do. Second, leaders have to share a story about a moment that altered how they viewed the world personally or professionally.

Why is storytelling so important? As an art that dates back to the beginning of time, storytelling gives visibility into the world of others. A story is very different than a vision or a strategy or a goal. It’s not about telling you what to do or providing directions; it’s about giving you an opportunity to see yourself in someone else’s version of the world. Let's pause and think about that for one moment. A great story may give you a lesson or make you laugh, but most importantly, it allows you to step into someone else’s shoes. As a leadership tool, it is one of the most powerful ways to help you inspire, build trust, and connect across differences. And to demonstrate, I will share a story with you.

A few weeks ago, I sat across from the head of a multibillion-dollar operations site to talk about his team. After our formal and professional discussion, we began to discuss the world, the stress of the economy and politics, and the impact of government decisions on the lives of employees and their families. To paint a picture, this leader is an over six-foot tall, white American male who was raised in a deeply conservative part of the U.S. As he tells it, he grew up in a world where everyone looked like him, and you simply believed what you were told to believe. He went on to the military, and he continued to learn that you do what is right—and that you do what you are told to do.

As he told me about his life, my first thought was that he and I have nothing in common. I am a Puerto Rican American who grew up across the most liberal parts of this country. I spent my upbringing learning how to push against the expectations of society and challenging assumptions made by others. I am fairly certain we would not be friends or conversing in any other context. But then I listened, because that is what happens when you tell a story. People listen and engage, and I heard something different and unanticipated.

He grew in a world where family and good strong values and work ethic mattered. I did too. You respected your elders and appreciated what they have given you, and you worked hard to make them proud, to make yourself proud, and to make your community proud. We both remember the simplicity of our childhood, when disagreements with friends were settled quickly so that you could get on with playing. He decided that he needed to find purpose and meaning in life and ultimately have an impact on the things that matter most. Things such as freedom, justice, and equality. On my part, I have spent my entire life trying to help people and organizations develop into the best version of themselves. In my own way, I have also fought for freedom, justice, and equality. He fought on the field, and I have fought in our communities.

At some point, we both moved toward trust, and we looked at each other and decided that we wanted the same things for this world and for our families. Our differences were minor compared to the vast ways in which we were connected.

I hear so often from CHROs and CEOs about how to create an organization where employees feel a deep sense of belonging. They want to know how they can give the diverse talent an opportunity to be seen and heard so that they can continue to grow and be successful. And they wonder how to change a culture that seems to keep the walls up between groups of people.  

I offer some simple advice: tell a story and listen to one too. It can make a difference.

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