Volume 24, March 2003: The Leader as Storyteller

Keyzine: An E-zine for Leaders about the People Side of Business

Publisher: © Key Associates, LLC, 2003 ISSN # 1545-8873

“The universe is made of stories, not atoms.” — Muriel Rukeyser

“The most erroneous stories are those we think we know best – and therefore never scrutinize or question.” — Stephen Jay Gould/p>

“There are many ways of breaking a heart. Stories were full of hearts broken by love, but what really broke a heart was taking away its dream – whatever that dream might be.” — Pearl Buck

“The first law of story-telling. Every man is bound to leave a story better than he found it.” — Mrs. Ward Humphrey

“Talking with one another is loving one another.” — African proverb from Kenya


  • What’s Hot in Leadership
  • Maintaining Yourself as a Leader
  • Frequently Asked Questions from Leaders
  • Educational Opportunities
  • Useful Websites & Newsletters
  • Articles/Publications

What’s Hot in Leadership

  • Listening to corporate legends as a gauge of the organization’s culture.
  • Speaking in visual language, as the mind thinks in pictures. Painting the future and lighting the way for people.
  • Telling stories that exemplify values and goals, e.g. The Team as Hero.
  • Learning the tools of business theater. Print, video, online and live in-person storytelling to facilitate cultural change.

Maintaining Yourself as a Leader

In this time of war, a suffering economy, and business survival challenges, it is easy to feel discouraged. Instead of handing out statistical reports or stacks of facts, use words to lift people up, not load them down. Portray and celebrate your history, strengths and victories with customers and employees.

If the stories going around in your organization are negative and cynical, counter them with stories in a style and tone which allows people to learn, to feel hope and pride, to see solutions and values in action.

If you are dry on stories, borrow some. Adapt them and improve upon them. Some of the works cited below are rich in leadership parables, e.g., Cheaney & Cotter (1991) and Armstrong (1992). Or take the existing stories in your organization and put a new “spin” on them.

Frequently Asked Questions

“What are some of the aspects of good story-telling?”
Speak with passion – from the heart. Inspire – breathe life into your story. Keep it simple and brief (1-7 minutes). Make it universal. Arouse emotion. Speak in word pictures, stimulate the senses. Grab attention and spellbind. Use friendly, non-threatening language.
“Is there a formula for constructing a story?”
Koppett (2001) suggests a Story Spine using these sentence stems:
  • Once upon a time
  • every day
  • but one day
  • the cause of that
  • until finally
  • and ever since then.
“Does the leader have to start all the stories?”
Impossible. The stories are already there. Peg Neuhauser (1993) suggests that leaders continually talk about the key values and goals of the organization, then other people pick up on these themes and start their own stories. Or find the stories already being told that emphasize these themes. The key is to encourage people to retell these stories, make up new ones and keep people focused on the important values and goals.
“What is Video Mistake Debriefing?”
(Okay, no one really asked this question. I just wanted you to know about this novel use of storytelling.) When a mistake or error is made that has significant consequences for an organization, this method is used to recreate the scenario, complete with staff actors, costumes, and real settings. Then the incident is acted out and taped for analysis, so all can learn how to avoid the mistake and improve the process for the future.


Key Associates offers a Leadership Development course, which encompasses story-telling as a preferred mode of communication: The New Leadership.

Free articles and facilitated exercises at Facilitated Exercises. For example, one appears on Cultural Story-Weaving atStory Weaving.

Learn the Story Theater Method: Story Theater International.

Weaving passion into performance – dynamic solutions through storytelling and theater: StoryNet.

Useful Websites & Newsletters

The National Storytelling Network is having a meeting in Chicago, July 9-13, 2003.

Pick up some stories for telling: Stories for the Telling, Riddles for the Asking.


  • Armstrong, David M. Managing by Storying Around, Doubleday Currency, 1992.
  • Batalden, Paul & Gillem, Tom. Hospitalwide Quality Improvement Storytelling.Hospital Corporation of America, 1989.
  • Campbell, Joseph. The Power of Myth. Doubleday, 1988.
  • Cheaney, Lee & Cotter, Maury. Real People, Real Work: Parables on Leadership, SPC Press, 1991.
  • Denning, Stephen. The Springboard: How Storytelling Ignites Action in Knowledge-Era Organizations. Butterworth-Heinemann, 2001.
  • DePree, Max. Leadership is an Art. Dell, 1989.
  • Fulford, Robert. The Triumph of Narrative: Storytelling in the Age of Mass Culture. Broadway Books, 2001.
  • Gabriel, Yiannis. Story-telling in Organizations: Facts, Fictions, and Fantasies. Oxford University Press, 2000.
  • Gluckman, Perry & Roome, Diane Reynolds. Everyday Heroes, SPC Press, 1990.
  • Lipman, Doug. Improving Your Storytelling: Beyond the Basics for All Who Tell Stories in Work or Play (American Storytelling). August House Publications, 1998.
  • Livo, Norma & Rietz, S.A. Storytelling: Process and Practice. Libraries Unlimited, 1992.
  • Maguire, Jack. The Power of Personal Storytelling: Spinning Tales to Connect With Others. J.P. Tarcher , 1998.
  • Neuhauser, Peg C. Corporate Legends and Lore: The Power of Storytelling as a Management Tool. McGraw-Hill, 1993.
  • Sawyer, Ruth. The Way of the Storyteller. Penguin USA, 1977.
  • Simmons, Annette. The Story Factor: Secrets of Influence from the Art of Storytelling. Perseus Publishing, 2000.


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