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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.

[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.

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