Lead With A Story: Book Review

by cv harquail on October 12, 2012

I’m suspicious of the idea that people who want to be leaders should tell more stories.  

While I get the arguments that stories are persuasive because they are emotional, have a predictable arc that makes it easy for people to get engaged with them, are easy to remember, etc. etc. I’ve sometimes wondered whether using stories was actually kind of wimpy.

Why such reservation about stories as a key leadership tool?

I’m sure my suspicions have a lot to do with the stories that are so commonly used: the bricklayer & the cathedral, the boiling frog, United Hates Guitars.

Too many leadership stories are the equivalent of internet memes. They’re interesting when you first discover them, but the more you see them used, the more tired and uncool they become.

lead w story.jpeg

Another hesitation I have about using stories is that stories are so unacademic.

Academics are taught to be precise, to be objective, to focus on facts, to convince through rational understanding. No professors publish empirical research in top-tier journals by telling stories (unless, of course, the research is ethnography).

My graduate training instilled in my a Vulcan-like reverence for logic over emotion. Logic is the correct way to convince; emotionality is a short cut.

(What’s weird, of course, is that some of my academic research investigates the roles that founding stories play in sustaining an organization’s identity and strategy. So I obviously appreciate stories, but probably less for their emotion and persuasion than for the “logic” that they provide for interpretation and behavior.)

Teaching with 60% of the Story

As a management professor at a school that prized the case discussion, I was brought up using stories to teach. Except that we use only 60% of the story to teach with — since management cases are “stories-without-their-conclusions”.

Business school cases tell only enough of the narrative to set up a complex situation. The ending is rarely part of the case study, because we want students to remember not how the story ended but instead how to create multiple different endings depending on their goals, priorities and choices.

In case teaching, telling the end of the story often shortchanges the learning, because students get focused on what went wrong rather than on what else could have happened if the leaders had done x, y, and z.

On a more personal level, I’m not a big story teller. I’m good at asking questions that get people to look at things differently, at coming up with words of phrases that grab a concept and make it workable, but I can rarely remember even the stories I’ve witnessed in person. And I almost never remember them at times when these stories would be useful to tell.

At best, I’ve counted on stories for illustration, not for explanation. 

Trying to Learn More about Stories

Despite these hesitations, I’ve made an effort these past several months to learn more about stories and how they work.

What prompted me to take this on was, first, that I’d recently received three different emails from people who wanted to know “the rest of the story” of one of the teaching cases I’ve written.  The case, interestingly, is about an organization that sustained its uniqueness through the completely fictional story of its founder.   I’d assumed that keeping the ending a mystery added some weight to the learning, but these emails made me wonder whether satisfying students’ curiosity might have some learning value too.

Closer to home, I’ve been trying to figure out how to highlight the real experiences of entrepreneurs and start-ups that I’ve been interviewing for my current work.  Can I learn to be a better story teller?  Maybe if I can learn to use stories more effectively, I might be able to include more of the ground-level specifics of what these folks are sharing with me.

And, selfishly, I might figure out how to make my writing less pedantic, so that people don’t fall asleep while reading about The Boost Economy.

Cracking Open Lead With A Story

When I was offered a review copy of Lead With A Story: A Guide To Crafting Business Narratives, That Captivate, Convince, and Inspire, by Paul Smith, I jumped at the chance to read it.

I was expecting it to be an easy, breezy, airport-bookstore-ish overview that would get me psyched to learn more.  Instead, Lead With A Story turned out to be thoughtful, meaty, comprehensive and seriously useful.

Fun fact: Lead With A Story opens with a story about a student consulting team. I re-used that story the first day of class to drive home a point for my student consulting teams. Now all I have to say is “the whole round table thing” and they nod in understanding.

My people call that “proof of concept”.

Two Leadership Books in One

Lead With A Story is  meaty (almost too meaty) because it has two meta-narratives. Book One tells us “How To” create, structure and use stories. Book Two is series of story collections, each organized by a situation in which these stories would be appropriate. 

Book One — the “How To” story — is terrific.

It convinced me out of several of my hesitations about the usefulness and elegance of stories as a leadership tool. “How to” chapters addressed structuring a story, keeping it real, appealing to emotion, drawing your audience into the story.

A profoundly straightforward and helpful chapter closed the book, with Smith addressing the little fears that popped up as I read the book. These issues included “What if I can’t find stories?” and “What if I can’t remember stories?”

Unfortunately, Smith did not address concerns like “What if my stories are corny?” and “What if no one gets my stories?”.  These concerns still give me pause.

Obviously, the academic in me loved seeing the abstracted concepts of good stories and good telling clarified, organized and connected. Anyone who likes to look at the map of the forest before considering how to climb any particular tree will find these chapters very useful.

Book Two, on the other hand, promised to reinforce all my annoyances about stories.

Why? Because it’s  “packed with over 100 ready to use narratives organized by different business challenges”. A recipe book? Really? But after three of these “Business Challenge” chapters, Smith had completely sold me on his point: These example stories can help anyone get started if (ahem, like me) they don’t really think of themselves as storytellers. And why not use these stories to get started feeling comfortable?

Fun fact: It turns out that the stories don’t have to be original to you for them to be meaningful to your audience.

I especially appreciated the Business Challenge chapters that addressed situations more specific and more personal than big sweeping concepts like “leading change”.

Smith includes situations like Valuing Diversity & Inclusion and Helping Others Find Passion in Their Work.  These are situations every manager faces and where every organization needs leadership. Topics like these helped the book feel realistic as well as encouraging. There’s a leadership lesson just in the list of chapter titles.

Smith also includes a summary of key points and a few exercises at the end of both “How-To” chapters and “Business Challenge” chapters. These are not useful as shortcuts to the content. Instead, these summaries demonstrate indirectly how much easier it is to remember more general, abstracted points when you’ve learned them first through — you guessed it — stories. Plus, these summaries make it hard to miss that Smith has embedded into each chapter actual leadership lessons for you, the reader.

Dear reader, I admit to you that I started the book feeling a little skeptical, and needing to consciously open my mind to being persuaded to learning. I finished the book with a handful of new stories to tell and a host of new insights about when and why stories like these should work.

It still frustrates me that logical explanation can’t always get the job done. However, Lead With A Story  has helped me see stories as less wimpy, more targeted, and more convincing as leadership tools.


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