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Paul Smith


The 10 Stories Great Leaders Tell

Weaving a story so compelling everyone wants to join in

Published: Thursday, May 5, 2022 - 12:03

Good leaders ask, “How do I tell better stories?” Great leaders ask, “Which stories do I need to tell?”

Does that mean how you tell a leadership story doesn’t matter? Of course not. But if you tell an irrelevant, unimportant, or self-serving story, it doesn’t matter how well you tell it. The story is more important than the delivery.

And although great leaders need hundreds of stories, not all stories are equally important. I’ve interviewed more than 300 CEOs, leaders, and executives in 25 countries around the world about their use of storytelling in business. Here’s my conclusion about the most important 10 stories any leader needs to be able to tell at a moment’s notice.

1. Where we came from (our founding story)—Nobody ever quit their job and started a company for a boring reason. Find that reason for your company’s founder and tell that story. It will infect everyone with the same sense of purpose and passion.

2. Why we can’t stay here (a case-for-change story)—Human beings are creatures of habit. Change is an unwelcome visitor. This story provides the rationale for why change is needed, and a real human reason to care.

ten stories great leaders tell

3. Where we’re going (a vision story)—A vision is a picture of the future so compelling that people want to go there with you. The best way to paint that picture is with a story about what that future will look like when you achieve it.

4. How we’re going to get there (a strategy story)—Strategy is how you’ll get from where you are now to where you want to be. In other words, strategy is a journey. And what better way to describe a journey than a story?

5. What we believe (a corporate-values story)—Values are only words on a piece of paper until they’re tested. This is a story of one of those awkward or uncomfortable moments when one of your company values was put to the test.

6. Whom we serve (a customer story)—There’s no substitute for getting out of the office and meeting your customer face to face. And for the majority in your organization who will never do that, this is a story you tell about one of your customer interactions so they’ll know that customer as well as you do.

7. What we do for our customers (a sales story)—A story about what you did for one of your customers that’s so impressive other people will want to buy what you’re selling as well.

8. How we’re different from our competitors (a marketing story)—You probably have a list of reasons why your product or service is better than your competition. Well, guess what? Nobody remembers your list. But they will remember the story you tell them that shows them those differences as they play out in a story.

9. Why I lead the way I do (a leadership-philosophy story)—No series of buzzwords on a piece of paper could ever articulate the subtle, human, and complex nature of your personal leadership philosophy. If you want people to understand how you lead, you need to tell them a story about what shaped the leader you’ve become.

10. Why you should want to work here (a recruiting story)—Every company claims it offers competitive pay and benefits, challenging work, and great advancement opportunities. If you really want to attract the best talent, you need real stories about why it’s so awesome to work there.

First published March 14, 2022, on the thoughtLEADERS blog.


About The Author

Paul Smith’s picture

Paul Smith

Paul Smith is a managing partner at Story Makers and a principal at thoughtLEADERS LLC. A popular speaker and a trainer in leadership and business storytelling techniques, Smith aims to make the world a better place one story at a time. Smith is the author of three books published by AMACOM: Lead With a Story (2012), Parenting With a Story (2014),and Sell With a Story (2016). During Smith’s 20 years with Procter & Gamble, he held leadership positions in research and finance, and served as director of consumer and communications research.