Simon Sinek’s book, Leaders Eat Last, is one of the best-selling business books of the last decade. And yet it’s not what you might expect from a book on leadership.
Sinek’s vision of successful leadership is based on a conversation he had with a Marine General while researching his book. The General explained that in Marine bases all over the world, the most junior Marines eat first and the senior Marines eat last. The answer is that the Marines view leadership as more of a responsibility than a rank. Rather than reveling in their power, they prioritize taking care of those in their charge and put the needs of others ahead of their own.
From this conversation, Sinek began to realize that great leadership is all about empowering others. He goes on to explain that empathy is one of the most vital personality traits of great leaders.
The value of empathy is something I’ve discussed several times, and I wholeheartedly agree with the overarching message of Leaders Eat Last. But today I want to talk about another crucial skill needed to great leadership – the skill of storytelling.
- Stories are an effective tool not just for writers but also for leaders.
- Powerful storytelling can inspire, bring people together, and help to cement facts and information.
- The world’s most successful brands invest in storytelling training for their leaders and even hire Chief Storytellers.
The Power of a Good Story
Let’s return to Sinek’s book for a moment. Was the reason it became a New York Times bestseller because of its topic and lessons or was it something else?
Chapter one of the book opens with the following paragraph:
“A thick layer of clouds blocked out any light. There were no stars and there was no moon. Just black. The team slowly made its way through the valley, the rocky terrain making it impossible to go any faster than a snail’s pace. Worse, they knew they were being watched. Every one of them was on edge.”
If you’re anything like me, you’re probably already hooked. In fact you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d picked up an action novel instead of a business book.
But this is how the book continues for the rest of the chapter. It tells the story of Captain Mike “Johnny Bravo” Drowley and his heroic actions on one night to save his team by risking his own life.
Sinek is clearly an excellent writer. He could have simply opened the book by explaining that the world’s best leaders prioritized the wellbeing of their people above all else. But by showing these lessons with a powerful story he ensures that you’re glued to the book from the first page, and the message is all the more powerful because of it.
Being a great storyteller is understandably an important skill for writers to possess. But they’re not the only people who can benefit from the power of a good story.
Using Empathy and Stories to Bring People Together
The reason that stories are so effective is because they engage our emotions, or more specifically, our empathy.
If you’ve ever read a really good story, you’ll have most likely felt as if you were transported into the world of the book, stepping into the character’s shoes and imagining how you would feel in the same situation.
Humans have a culture of storytelling not only because stories are an effective educational tool but also because they bond people together. When multiple people have the same ideas and feel the same emotions when they’re listening to a story, it’s as if they’ve gone through an experience together.
Smart leaders realize that they can use stories to unite people together towards a common goal. Storytelling is a vital communication skill that can inspire, promote creativity, build relationships, and solidify the organization’s values.
How to Use Storytelling as a Leader
If you’re new to the idea of storytelling as a leadership technique, the concept may seem rather abstract – nice in theory but one of those great ideas that nobody really bothers to implement.
In fact some of the world’s biggest brands take storytelling very seriously indeed. Nike has been employing people in the role of “Chief Storyteller” since the ‘90s, and other successful global companies including Microsoft and IBM have also put storytelling at the heart of their brand and culture. Some organizations have invested a significant amount of resources into teaching storytelling skills to their executives, such as P&G who have hired Hollywood movie directors to lead some of their senior leadership training programs.
But how exactly do you weave storytelling into your leadership technique in a practical way?
Start Meetings with a Good Story
Want to get people hooked on your words from the start? As demonstrated in the Leaders Eat Last book, jumping straight into a compelling story can be a fantastic way to grab your audience’s attention.
Telling a story, even a very short one, is a very effective way of engaging your team and can help to set the stage for the rest of the content. Think of a story that relates to the purpose of your meeting, and use it to make everyone an active listener from the start.
Win Hearts and Minds (Build Consensus)
If you’ve ever worked in any kind of managerial capacity, you’ve most likely come across a time when your team needed some convincing to buy into a particular plan or way of working.
Of course, not every idea thought up by leadership is a great one, and good employees question their managers instead of blindly following. But if you have an idea you’re truly passionate about, it’s vital to make sure that the whole team pulls together to give it their best shot.
This is one of those situations where the power of storytelling is really apparent. Rather than trying to convince people, win them over by engaging their emotions and inspiring them to succeed.
Build Better Relationships
Great leaders are not dictators. They’re not afraid to come down and meet every individual on their own level. The more your employees understand you care about them, the more trust they’ll have in your leadership and the more willing they’ll be to work hard to achieve team goals.
Storytelling is a wonderfully effective method of nurturing these leader-employee relationships and forming bonds between other members of your team. Nothing brings people together like a good story.
Explain Difficult and Abstract Concepts
Storytelling is also an effective educational tool. Rather than using dull presentations, charts, and factual explanations, think about how you can spin the ideas into a good story.
Stories have been used to teach morals, values, and difficult concepts for thousands of years. This is because being shown something with an example is much more memorable and effective than simply being told it. Research by Stanford University has found that stories are remembered up to 22 times better than straight facts.
Instead of simply telling your team to do X. Y, and Z, tell the story of another team or business that did these things and achieved great results because of it.
Stories Make for Great Content Too
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