Leadership Storytelling

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When I was a little boy and my grandmother was still alive, we would travel to Philadelphia every Thanksgiving to spend the holiday with her. After dinner, my uncles would go to the front room. They set up a small black and white TV on a folding chair. If you asked them, they would say they were watching the Thanksgiving Day football games. But they were really telling stories. 

My Uncle Pat was one of the first professional sales trainers. Stories were his main tools. I can still see him gesturing with a cigar in his hand as he told a story. He tried out material on us.

My father was a preacher. He was one of the first to use stories in his sermons. Many older pastors thought that was disrespectful. Dad said that Jesus told a lot of stories. He would try out material on us, too. 

My Uncle Johnny was a cop. He was also an Irishman. His stories were always colorful and funny. He went for laughs and gasps.

It’s been more than 60 years since my grandmother died. We quit going to Philadelphia for Thanksgiving.  I’ve learned to use stories effectively as a leader. Here are some things I’ve learned about leadership storytelling.

Leadership Storytelling

You may not be Abraham Lincoln, but there’s at least one way you can be like him. His enemies criticized him for many things. But they all agreed that he was able to tell a story for almost any situation. 

Artificial intelligence researcher Roger Schank said we think people are wise when they’re able to do that. It’s a skill you can learn. 

The Stories You Tell

Every leader should be able to tell two important stories. One is the story of how you became the leader you are. Ken Blanchard calls that your” leadership point of view.” Mark Deterding calls it your “leadership portrait.” Whatever you call it, telling the story of why you lead the way you do helps people understand you. 

You should be able to tell the story of where you’re going. It’s not a story in the usual sense because it’s about the future. But it helps people imagine the direction that you’re all going. 

Leonard Tompkins was a mentor and one of the great influences on my life. He told me the story of how he started in business and helped me understand why he did things a certain way. He also told me where he expected the business to go. He told it as a story, what things would be like when we were out there in the future together. 

Become a Story Collector

You won’t have a story for every occasion if you depend on your own experience. So, become a collector of stories. You’ll find stories in books and magazines. You’ll find them in blog posts and on websites. You’ll hear other people tell stories. 

When you stumble on an interesting one, make it your own. Take notes so you’ll remember what the story is about. 

Try telling the story to a few people to drive it into your memory so that it’s available when you need it. Add your own interpretation and flavor to the stories you collect. Be sure to give credit to the source. Don’t claim experience you haven’t got. 

Listen to Other People’s Stories

Human beings have used stories to remember and share important information since we first crawled out of caves. You will be a more effective leader if you learn about your people. The best way to do that is to listen to them.

That’s hard for many leaders. We act like the only stories worth telling are the ones we have. But that’s not so. Let your people tell you their stories. Encourage them to share their stories with you and other team members. Then, shut up and listen. You’ll learn a lot.

Make storytelling part of your leadership toolkit. Learn to tell stories well. Collect stories. Listen to other people’s stories. 


Learn to use stories like Abe Lincoln.

Tell the story of how you became the leader you are.

Tell the story of the future you imagine for everyone.

Become a story collector.

Learn about your teammates by listening to their stories.

Join The Conversation

What People Are Saying

LaRae Quy   |   27 Mar 2023   |   Reply

Wally, I loved this article! It really got me thinking about how important it is to have a clear and concise vision for my business. “You should be able to tell the story of where you’re going. It’s not a story in the usual sense because it’s about the future. But it helps people imagine the direction that you’re all going.”

Wally Bock   |   28 Mar 2023   |   Reply

Thanks for the kind words, LaRae. I’m glad you fund the post useful.

Ed   |   27 Mar 2023   |   Reply

Im a public speaking so this has always been interesting subject.

Richard Regan   |   27 Mar 2023   |   Reply

You may want to rethink your obsession with Lincoln as a great role model for storytelling. In defense of Indian Country, Lincoln-the great storyteller, should have been prosecuted for war crimes.

• Even the President who freed the slaves could not see fit to view American Indians in the category of people who were created equal.

• Dee Brown in his book, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, talks about how Lincoln was responsible for the largest mass execution in US History. In 1862, Lincoln commissioned the hanging of 38 Dakota Sioux prisoners in Makato, MN. Charged with crimes with little proof, many of these captives were non-violent cultural or religious leaders of their Tribe. Lincoln was playing politics and the race card the entire time with the above episode. Afraid that Minnesota would enter the side of the South in the Civil War, he went forward with the above execution and also promised the state of Minnesota that he would kill or remove every Indian from state as well as give the state 2 million dollars.

• Lincoln signed the Homestead Act and the Pacific Railway Act of 1862 which guaranteed the loss of land, natural resources, culture and language for American Indians.

• Lincoln’s Indian Office to be later called the Bureau of Indian Affairs never took their government-to-government relationship seriously with Tribes which led to corruption among Indian agents who often stole provisions and other resources earmarked for American Indians.

• The 1863 Lincoln administration was responsible for the removal of Navajos and Mescalero Apaches from the New Mexico Territory. By the time a treaty had been signed, nearly 2,000 Navajos died as a result of this relocation. Some folks call this Lincoln’s “Trail of Tears.”

• He had the audacity in 1863 to say to a group of American Indian Chiefs who were visiting him in Washington, DC, “We are not as a race so much disposed to fight and kill one another as our Red Brethren.” These American Indians must have been puzzled by such a statement since by that time, 300,000 had died during the Civil War that happened on Lincoln’s watch.

• W. Dale Mason describes Lincoln’s policy toward American Indians as one of “wards of the government.” He never viewed the civil rights of American Indians in the same way he viewed civil rights for African Americans. For American Indians, there was no Emancipation Proclamation under Lincoln.

The perpetuation of the racist Abraham Lincoln legacy reverberates in the ears of those of us who welcomed people like Lincoln to our country’s shores with the right hand of fellowship, as we are once again reminded by people like you, Mr. Lincoln and your kin folks of how all of you took advantage of our gratefulness and rewarded us with land theft, extermination from disease, violence and near total destruction.

These echoes still reverberate today from Lincoln’s racist policies and people like you who perpetuate them against indigenous people in the form of generational trauma that is passed down to survivors like myself, due to (1) broken treaties; (2) forced assimilation (3) genocide; (4) boarding schools; (5) land theft; (6) force sterilization and (6) manifest destiny.

Lincoln might have been a great storyteller. But like all truthful stories, it matters who is telling the story and who keeps repeating the story once the original storyteller is dead.

In this case, I commend you for continuing the legacy of White fragility, superiority, supremacy and power in your narrative through story telling.

From Uncle Pat, Uncle Johnny, your father, the fake Holiday of Thanksgiving and of course, Abraham Lincoln, you keep the narrative of White Privilege alive and well, everything is white and all right in the Bock household.

omi   |   28 Mar 2023   |   Reply

stories are a very fun way of connecting with people around .since childhood days especially during summer breaks we children use to gather around our grandparents and aunts and uncles and listen attentively to their funny anecdotes and stories of their times our times and the town side stories the village where they had grown too.

so especially in my profession that is training ,advising and consulting it is definitely an added advantage if we can be good storytellers . A tip here is that tell those stories which are simple and easy to relate to do not copy any person or style ya if you dont have one you can share somebodies story but pl give then the due credit for the same and do not do it otherwise

there are many courses on storytelling available on udemy,coursera etc

happy storytelling !!

Wally Bock   |   28 Mar 2023   |   Reply

Thank you, Omi

Jane Bais DiSessa   |   28 Mar 2023   |   Reply

I enjoyed reading your “Leadership Story” article! I have lots of stories (lol) to tell. Look forward reading future articles.

Thanks for allowing me to comment,


Wally Bock   |   28 Mar 2023   |   Reply

Thanks for the kind words.

Rita B.   |   30 Mar 2023   |   Reply

Thank you for this article!

Wally Bock   |   30 Mar 2023   |   Reply

Thanks for your comment. I’m glad you found the article helpful.

Brian Grossman   |   03 Apr 2023   |   Reply

Excellent points and reminders. I love the point about the future “you imagine.” This is a tool I use in weight loss coaching and leadership training. Imagining the direction a participant or client is going builds empathy, rapport, and engagement.

Wally Bock   |   10 Apr 2023   |   Reply

Thanks for the kind word and the examples of how you use the principle.

SANTHA KUMAR S   |   18 Apr 2023   |   Reply

loved the article!

Wally Bock   |   19 Apr 2023   |   Reply

Thanks for the kind words.

Dan Diehl   |   19 Apr 2023   |   Reply

I want to become a better communicator and hence a better story-teller.

Wally Bock   |   19 Apr 2023   |   Reply

Hi Dan – you may want to check out a post on my writing site titled “How to Tell a Story to Your Kids or Your Customers” on my writing site.