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Chapter 12: Leader as Storyteller


I've been an orator really, basically, all of my life. Since I was three and a half, I've been coming up in the church speaking. . . . I've spoken at every church in Nashville at some point in my life. You sort of get known for that. Other people were known for singing. I was known for talking.

Oprah Winfrey
Janet Lowe, Oprah Speaks: Insight from the World's Most Influential Voice, pp. 15-16.

The atmosphere in the room was tense. For the men in the room, what would happen next could mean a pat on the back on the way up the ladder, or a kick in the backside on the way down. It was an army briefing room. The man to be briefed was a legend, a soldier's soldier, General Creighton Abrams. For one young man in the room, a major, it was a chance to glimpse up close the legendary tank commander who had helped rescue the 101st Airborne at Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge. The intervening years had not mellowed the old soldier; he was now commander of all forces in Vietnam. One by one the more senior officers stood up and made their briefings. There was no reaction from the general. Finally it was time for the major. He stood up, strode to the front of the room, and itemized unit strengths and weaknesses battalion by battalion. He did it without notes; he had only a pointer and some charts. When he finished, Abrams grunted and left the room.

Another soldier followed him out and returned minutes later with a big smile. "Abe's happy," he said. The major asked how he could tell. "For one thing, he wanted to know, who's that young major?"

The major was one that all of America would know two decades later: Colin Powell.[1]

That's a great story about an American hero!

Now imagine that a leader who was recounting this event simply stood up and said, "Once upon a time a young soldier gave a briefing to a general and made a positive impression."

True, but bor - ing! By the second line, members of the audience would be checking texts, voice messages, and emil on their mobile phones, or catnapping. They would not be engaged. Why? Because a clinical rendition omits context and character. It is from those two elements that good stories emerge.

Context and character reverberate throughout the communications of effective leadership communicators. Rosabeth Moss Kanter includes many stories from the front lines of change; if you just read the stories from her many books over the past two decades, you can get a good sense of the change that American management has experienced in recent times. Colin Powell is a good stump speaker, filling his speeches with stories from his life as well as stories of people he has met along the way. Harvey Penick's coaching method, which is reflected in his books, uses stories to illustrate points about the game of golf, as well as points about life in general. Mother Teresa told stories about the work in her mission to interviewers as well as to famous and not-so-famous people as a means of encouraging people to help the poor, not only in India but in their own communities.

Through storytelling, leaders can frame a current experience through the prism of context and character - their own or someone else's. Stories can be used to uplift the spirit, to caution the unwise, to provide insight into experiences, and even to laugh at a situation. Leaders who learn to tell stories are leaders who are innately aware of the human condition, an insight that prepares them to lead others (see Figure 12-1).

Leader as Storyteller

Figure 12-1:  Leader as Storyteller

The Power of a Story

From our earliest days, we are told stories, or parables, about the rewards of being a good child and the dangers of being a bad one. Grimm's Fairy Tales are classic examples of the consequences of poor decision making. Little Red Riding Hood, for example, discovers the error of befriending strangers at her own considerable peril.

In the Middle Ages, storytellers and troubadours traveled from village to village, spinning yarns about lords and ladies, about star-crossed lovers and dishonorable dastards. What is Chaucer's Canterbury Tales if not a series of fables about human adventures and misadventures told by a group of pilgrims on their way to visit a religious shrine?

To read Peter Drucker is to experience the scope of history in its broadest sense. Part historian and part social commentator, Drucker links history with management in a way that puts management into context as a human endeavor - that is, as something that has been going on for quite some time - and to draw parallels with the way the people who came before us dealt with the challenges brought on by economic, social, political, and technological change.

Stories are fundamental to human character. In fact, they serve as frameworks for our character. They illustrate behavior in ways that only stories can because they transport the listener away from the current situation to learn about another similar situation. This separateness creates distance, which ideally will enable the listener to draw a lesson from the story that he or she can apply to his or her own work situation. And it is for this reason that storytelling is so compelling for today's leaders.

Let's examine eight different types of stories and how leaders may use them in the business situation.

The Cautionary Tale

Cautionary stories are endemic to business. Because they lack effective communication skills, many people in business tell, or direct, instead of showing by pointing at cautionary examples.

Lessons drawn from business history are always effective. One favorite is the tale of the Xerox executives who were shown the first version of the graphical user interface (GUI), featuring mouse commands. Curiously, their wives joined them for the presentation. The story goes that the senior managers saw no need for icons or pull-down menus. Their wives, however, many of whom had been secretaries, instinctively liked the computer interface. Their intuition did not prevail, and management passed up the development. Later, young Steve Jobs, on a tour of Xerox Parc in Palo Alto, saw the GUI, instantly recognized its applicability, and used the interface for Apple Computer products. Stories such as this illustrate the peril of ignoring the future for the comfort of the past. Willingness to take risks is essential.


A counterpoint to risk taking is reassurance. You need to make people feel comfortable. Baseball manager Joe Torre learned all about reassurance as a young man in basic training during the Cuban missile crisis in 1962. He was put in charge of some 50 recruits, and rumors of possible war were swirling around. Things were very tense, and the guys asked Joe if there would be a war. To which the young man replied, "Don't worry, we're not going to war." As Torre puts it with the wisdom of hindsight, "What did I have to lose by reassuring them?"[2] In other words, worry about what you can control, and forget about what you cannot control.

Inspirational Messages

The stock in trade of leaders is the human-interest story, the one that takes the listener from the valley of despair to the heights of redemption. While many may scoff at the triteness of these stories, it is not the story itself that is trite. What is trite is the way in which the speaker uses the story to manipulate emotion. If used appropriately and with honesty, stories of redemption truly do inspire.

The story of Oprah Winfrey is an inspiration in itself. There is a misperception that celebrities, once they make it, are on easy street. Oprah's ups and downs are living proof that every step in life can be a challenge. Oprah was born poor and black. She became a television newscaster at 19, but failed as an anchorwoman at 22. She hit her stride in talk television, first in Baltimore, then in Chicago, and then nationwide. She made it on the big screen with an Oscar nomination for The Color Purple, but flopped at the box office with Beloved. Her touch in the media business has been golden, but from time to time she has been the target of gossipy negative stories in the popular press. And through it all she has battled her weight, up and down. Once she said that she had lost 550 pounds over the course of her many diets. Over and over Oprah has persevered and continues to succeed on her own terms, the very model of self-inspiration.[3]


Everyone loves a story about the hero who is willing to pursue his or her goals even against the toughest of odds. Playing professional sports is among the most difficult pursuits. One of the hardest of these is the PGA tour. Thousands try to make it, but few have the stamina, the game, and the mental will to succeed.

Tom Kite, a noted golfer and a student of Harvey Penick, was a successful amateur. When he announced to his father that he was going to turn pro, his father was not pleased.

"Tom," he said, "for every 100 men who try the tour, 99 will fail."

"Dad," Tom replied, "I sure feel sorry for those other 99 because I intend to make it."[4]

And make it he did. At one point in his career, Kite was the biggest money winner of all time. He later became captain of the Ryder Cup, the first of Harvey Penick's students to do so. (Ben Crenshaw was the second.) Money aside, it is Kite's gritty determination that illuminates this story.

Another sort of determination can be found in quarterback Tom Brady. At each stage of his football career, he has overcome obstacles that would have felled a lesser quarterback. In his senior season, he seemed to be overshadowed by a younger, flashier player; despite some ups and downs, he persevered and led Michigan to an overtime victory in the Orange Bowl. In the pros, he was in the shadow of a $100 million quarterback; it did not appear that he would ever play until an injury felled Drew Bledsoe. And despite being a second-year quarterback with negligible playing time, Brady led the team to the Super Bowl, a game in which he was selected as Most Valuable Player. At every step, Brady persevered - sometimes against injury; other times against experience (Bledsoe) or inexperience (his own). His determination, coupled with his hard work and vocal team spirit, drove him forward.

One more example of determination is the career of Robert Redford. He could have been content to be a glamorous movie star - he had the looks and the box office appeal. Instead, he chose to extend himself as an actor and selected the roles he would play with that in mind. He also migrated to directing. Offscreen, he devoted his energies to environmental causes, freedom of speech, and, of course, the Sundance Institute, where artists can pursue their visions temporarily free of commercial pressures.


This type of story is a voyage of self-discovery for the teller. The outcome is the leader's self-knowledge, i.e., "what I learned about myself and what I hope others will learn from this." Katherine Graham's autobiography, Personal Story, is such a case. Graham was shy and introverted and took to reflection naturally. When she became publisher of the Washington Post, she forced herself to come out of her shell and appear on the public stage. Her book is her attempt to gain perspective on her career, to tell more about her husband, Phil's, ultimately fatal battle with manic depression, and, as she writes, "to arrive at some understanding of how people are formed by the way they grow up and further molded by the way they spend their days."[5] Sounds like a pretty strong self-assessment. Ultimately, the reflection story not only leads to self-discovery for the one who tells it, but also contributes to heightened self-awareness on the part of the reader or listener.

Humorous Anecdote

Stories don't necessarily need to have a moral, but it's good if they do. Yet that does not mean that stories must be dark. Quite the contrary: An exercise of wit can often evoke more wisdom.

Promoter Bill Veeck was a legendary storyteller as well as a one-man band of practical jokes. A favorite trick was to stab himself in the leg with an ice pick (his wooden leg, the one with a built-in ashtray). Only a man with Veeck's whimsy could turn a war injury into a prop for a joke. It was that sense of fun that inspired him to dream up ways to make coming out to the ballpark as much fun as going to the circus. Sports columnist Jim Murray once wrote of Veeck, "His mind was 71, but his heart was 12."[6]

Jokes, too, can illuminate and elucidate. Choose them carefully, however, particularly if you are not familiar with the audience. Make certain that the humor is either self-deprecating or else directed at a universal target of ridicule - bureaucracy, used car salesmen, the I.R.S., politicians, or Hollywood types.

For example, a Hollywood producer comes home early one morning to find his wife waiting for him. She's in a foul mood and demands an explanation. The producer explains that he had been entertaining a lovely leading lady who invited him back to her place. Then, the producer continued, "one thing led to another." The wife was not placated. "Don't lie to me. You've been out playing poker with the boys."[7]

Kindness to Strangers

Compassion is a vital element of leadership. Leaders can talk about it until they are blue in the face, but one story can say more than all the lectures.

Mother Teresa had a rich treasure trove of stories, many of which make profound moral points. For example, she tells the story of the young child of 3 whom she encountered on the street. Seeing that the little girl was hungry, Mother Teresa gave her bread. "Eat, eat the bread. You are hungry." The girl did so very slowly. "I am afraid. When the bread will be finished, I will be hungry again."[8] When you hear a story like that, you cannot fail to be moved, first by the human need that exists in our world, and then by the inhumanity of a world that allows a child to starve. Telling stories like that enabled Mother Teresa to rally people to her cause, not simply as contributors, but as doers, people who would help others in their own communities.

Courage and Vision

Much has been written about Winston Churchill as visionary and statesman, and with good reason. But often it is good to go back to the great man's own words to gain perspective on who he was as a man. Despite periodic bouts of what he called the "black dog" (depression), Churchill remained basically an optimist - so much so that it became infectious. But he was not so na´ve as to assume that others would be as optimistic, so he tried to will them to be so. Here is an excerpt from a memo he sent in late May 1940, arguably Britain's most troubled hour:

In these dark days the Prime Minister would be grateful if all his colleagues in the Government, as well as high officials, would maintain a high morale in their circles; not minimizing the gravity of events, but showing confidence in our ability and inflexible resolve, to continue the war till we have broken the will of the enemy to bring all of Europe under his domination.[9]

At the time Churchill dictated that note, most of Europe was under the heel of the Nazis. France had nearly fallen, and Russia was still allied with Germany. The United States would not enter the war for another 18 months. And here is Churchill, as courageous, righteous, and resolved as he would ever be in his life, calling on his nation's leadership to buck up and persevere in the face of all odds.

Acting Out Stories

Storytelling also can take the form of play-acting. Trainers do this very well when they create role-plays and simulations. In role-plays, participants are asked to play roles related to work situations. For example, one participant may play an irate customer, and the other play the customer service representative. In another situation, participants may act out a performance appraisal. In training, it is often insightful to have participants step out of their current roles and assume different roles. In this way, direct reports will get to play at being supervisors, and bosses will assume the role of subordinates. These role-plays, if done correctly, can lead to insights that employees can take back to their workplace and use to function more effectively, as well as more humanely.

Simulations are more elaborate role-plays. They typically involve longer, more detailed play-acting based on an established storyline, usually a case study. Various participants assume the role of members of the organization, such as vice president of finance, vice president of marketing, director of engineering, or middle management functionaries. Simulations can last up to a day, or longer. They may even involve replays if the facilitator provides additional variables that may affect the outcome. Both role-plays and simulations, however, are nothing more than elaborate story-telling exercises. They involve multiple players, as opposed to a single storyteller, but they are stories nonetheless.

Importance of Telling Stories

Stories are important to us. From the days of our tribal ancestors, we have been sharing tales, shaping fables, and writing plays about the human condition. Why? Because these stories, with their rich context and stylized character, cast a window of light into our souls. And from that experience we learn more about who we are and who we might become. Leadership that is rooted in story and guided in story is leadership that is centered in the human condition, which ultimately is where it belongs.

Oprah Winfrey - Life as a Story

Amid the plethora of afternoon programs ranging from steamy soaps to shock-talk TV, there is a voice apart. It is one of clarity born of focus, conviction steeled by hard times, heart born of compassion, and natural ebullience that bubbles up frequently. It is Oprah. With Oprah, what you see is what you get. The woman is as genuine as the Mississippi hardscrabble from which she comes. She is inordinately rich and very powerful. And the key to her success and influence is simple - her ability to communicate and connect with people in a way that makes her seem accessible as well as intuitive. When Oprah speaks, people listen. Better yet from a business perspective, they buy. She is a communicator par excellence.

Business Scope

Oprah is more than a television personality; she is the doyenne of a self-created media empire. However, she says, "I don't think of myself as a businesswoman,"[10] and she has turned down invitations to serve on corporate boards such as those of AT&T, Ralph Lauren, and Intel. She has even kept a personal cache of $50 million in cash, not for a sense of wealth, but from a sense of fear - a personal "bag-lady fund."[11] It is a sentiment that many who were born to poverty feel even when they accumulate a great deal of wealth.

But Oprah isn't just about wealth for herself. She sits at the helm of a billion-dollar enterprise, Harpo, Inc. (Oprah spelled backwards). The anchor is The Oprah Winfrey Show, with a daily viewership of 22 million in the United States alone, not to mention the other 106 countries in which it airs. It has been the number one daytime show for 16 consecutive years. O, The Oprah Magazine, which Oprah describes as a "personal growth manual," is considered the "most successful startup ever" in magazine publishing, with revenues topping $140 million in 2001 and a paid subscriber base of 2.5 million. Her company also produces hit TV movies such as Tuesdays with Morrie and has a stake in Oxygen Media, described as "a cable TV company for women." She also ventures on the self-help circuit, speaking to audiences live.[12] Oprah is also an accomplished actress. She received an Oscar nomination for her role in Steven Spielberg's adaptation of The Color Purple. Another film, Beloved, was a critical hit, but was unsuccessful at the box office.

She has resisted taking her company public. "If I lost control of the business, I'd lose myself - or at least the ability to be myself. Owning myself is a way to be myself."[13] That's not a bad assessment of someone who has made a business of self-disclosure, both her own and that of her guests. She does, however, know how to make strategic alliances - with King World for distribution of her show and with Hearst Publications for her magazine. Oprah has also delegated the business operations to the president of Harpo, Jeff Jacobs, who has a 10 percent stake in the business. "He's a piranha - and that's a good thing for me to have," she says, in deference to the cutthroat world of multimedia entertainment.[14]

Self-Revelation as a Means of Connection

Oprah has also collaborated with fitness guru Bob Greene to write a couple of books on fitness. Frequently the subject of barbs from comedians as well as commentators, Oprah has battled her weight all of her life. Her up-and-down struggle has been chronicled as much by her as by others, and her willingness to share her weaknesses (along with her triumphs) rings with authenticity.

Oprah has the capacity to crusade for issues in which she believes strongly. In 1992 she produced a documentary on abuse within families that was broadcast simultaneously on CBS, NBC, and PBS. She followed this broadcast by covering the topic on her own show, including a segment in which a young woman confronted her abusive stepfather during the program's taping. She continued speaking out on the topic, including traveling to Capitol Hill to testify. Only later did she come to the realization that she was not the one to blame for being abused as a child. The sharing of this intensely private revelation is an example of how she injects herself into her communications as a means of helping others come to grips with their own personal demons.[15] A year later, the National Child Protection Act was enacted. She was present when President Bill Clinton signed the bill, which was also known as "Oprah's Law."[16]

Oprah is naturally empathetic and uses her own experiences to draw others out. While other hosts use topics like this to shock, Oprah uses them to raise awareness and perhaps begin a healing process - not only for her guests, but for her viewers. She does, however, admit to mistakes, recalling from the past a live show on adultery that resulted in the transgressing husband's confessing to his wife that his girlfriend was pregnant. Seeing the shock on the wife's face moved Oprah to tears herself. Still, the show crossed the line, and she did not wish to repeat the experience: "You should not have to come on television and be publicly shamed and humiliated."[17]

Oprah is more philosophical about her role. "I'm a black woman - I own the show, I own the studio . . . [and this] speaks volumes about the possibility of what a black person can do, a black female can do."[18] Oprah features successful men and woman of color where appropriate as a matter of inclusiveness. "[T]he point about breaking down racial barriers is to show that we're more alike than we're different, that all feelings, all pain, all joys, all sorrows, bear no color. The reason I've been successful is because I focus on the commonality."[19]

Words of Wisdom

For Oprah, giving advice is second nature. In a way, her life is her message. Her achievements, tempered by her infectious sense of humor, give her stature; people want to listen to what she has to say. Here is a sampling from Oprah Winfrey Speaks: [20]

On Herself

More than anything else, I would call myself a truth seeker. I'm always looking for truth and its value in my life. (p. 130)

Power is strength over time. (p. 105)

Gut is what got me to where I am today. (p. 113)

I'm a person who lives my life with great passion, and I think that comes across on camera. (p. 37)

On the Future

When I look at the future it's so bright I burn my eyes. (p. 173)

I believe that you tend to create your own blessings. You have to prepare yourself so that when opportunity comes, you're ready for it. (p. 167)

On Her Fame

I've developed a great respect for fish. I'll tell ya, because I've lived my life in a fishbowl. (p. 73)

On Her Impact

I feel that my show is a ministry; we just don't take up a collection. And I feel that it is a teaching tool, without preaching to people about it.(p. 126)

People have told me their lives have changed because of me. I take away from this the sense that I'm on the right track. (p. 170)

The Power of Her Influence

An indication of Oprah's influence was evident in her decision to cease doing her monthly "Oprah's Book Club" in the spring of 2002. When she started the club in 1996, publishers claimed that her endorsement could boost sales by as much as one million copies. Over the years, that figure fell to 600,000 - still a considerable amount by any measure. This kind of influence is indicative of the way Oprah connects; her audiences trust her instincts because they find echoes of those instincts in themselves. (In early 2003, Oprah announced that she would bring back the book club.)

Oprah has announced that she will cease production of her show at the completion of the 2005-2006 season, after 20 years of doing the show. While she may be leaving one stage, it is unlikely that she will be leaving the arena completely. As one with the ability to connect so intimately with so many people, she is likely to continue using her communication gifts to extend her reach as she seeks to educate, entertain, and enrich those who hear her message.

[1]Colin Powell with Joseph E. Persico, My American Journey, pp. 131-132.

[2]Joe Torre with Henry Dreher, Joe Torre's Ground Rules for Winners, p. 225.

[3]Janet Lowe, Oprah Winfrey Speaks: Insight from the World's Most Influential Voice.Don Wade, "And Then Jack Said to Arnie . . .": A Collection of the Greatest True Golf Stories of All Time, p. 90.

[4]Katherine Graham, Personal History, p. 623.

[5]Pat Williams with Michael Weinreb, Marketing Your Dreams: Business and Life Lessons from Bill Veeck, Baseball's Marketing Genius p. 66.

[6]Jacob M. Braided, Complete Speaker's and Toastmaster's Library, 2nd ed., rev. Glenn Van Ekern.

[7]Mother Teresa, No Greater Love, ed. Becky Benenate and Joseph Durepos, with a foreword by Thomas Moore, p. 97.

[8]Randolph Churchill and Martin Gilbert, The Churchill War Papers, vol. 2, p. 187, quoted in Roy Jenkins, Churchill: A Biography, p. 610.

[9]Pamela Sellers, "The Business of Being Oprah: She Talked Her Way to the Top of Her Own Media Empire and Amassed a $1 Billion Fortune. Now She's Asking, ‘What's Next?'" Fortune, Apr. 1, 2002, p. 50.





[14]Ginny Holbert, "Oprah Winfrey Breaks Silence on Child Abuse," Chicago Sun-Times, Aug. 30, 1992.

[15]Maya Jaggi, "The Power of Talk Shows Has Made Oprah Rich and Famous . . .," Manchester Guardian, Feb. 13, 1999.




[19]Lowe, Oprah Winfrey Speaks.

[20]David D. Kirkpatrick, "Oprah Will Curtail ‘Book Club' Picks, and Authors Weep," New York Times, Apr. 6, 2002, p. 1.

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