Your CEO as Master Storyteller

Three types of stories leaders need to tell.

An open letter to CEOs, Executive Directors, and other Powers that Be:

Believe it or not, study after study shows that storytelling is the most effective tool that leaders can use to drive impact. To teach about successes and failures. To unify a team with a shared purpose.

Study after study shows that truly great leaders are mission-focused and that inspirational leadership is the key to their success. It is the reason Dr. Howard Gardner wrote in Leading Matters, “Stories are the most important tool in a leader’s toolkit.”

All of this means: You as a leader need to be the Master Storyteller—not just of your organization, but of your issue area. You need to touch people at their deepest levels and stir in them a deep sense of belonging and caring. In other words, you need to master the Art of Inspiration. Three types of stories will help you engage, inspire, and enthrall your employees, funders, and constituents:

FIRST, get personal.

Inspirational leaders, according to one Harvard study, are those who are approachable.

Revealing your defining moment is one of the most powerful ways to showcase your authenticity and humanity at the same time that you define your leadership style. After all, according to another Harvard study, one of the most reliable predictors of extraordinary leadership is a person’s ability to conquer adversity and transform. The very same skills that allowed you to emerge stronger after a soul-sapping ordeal are the exact same skills that have shaped you into an extraordinary leader.

So share the story of your biggest ordeal—and what you learned. Tell us about the gnarly obstacles you’ve overcome—and what you value as a result. And above all, share the stories of your trials—and how they’ve instilled a greater purpose in you, the same greater purpose that propels you out of bed each morning.

SECOND, share your One Really Big Idea.

Peter Drucker, the management expert, said that one of the most crucial jobs for an executive is to be a thought leader. You need to braille the world and be hypervigilent about spotting both seismic shifts and weak signals of change in your issue area.

To be a truly inspirational leader, you need to distill your thought leadership story down to One Really Big Idea. This is so essential that one of the TED organizers found that the talks that reached not just thousands of viewers, but millions of people, were the ones that articulated One Really Big Idea.

Think of your One Really Big Idea as a provocative short story or elevator pitch. Challenge yourself to crystallize your One Really Big Idea into a crisp, repeatable Tweet-worthy statement.

THIRD, mine your organization’s origin story.

In the first two weeks as Ford’s new CEO, Alan Mulally trolled the company archives for its heart and soul. He found it in one of Ford’s first ads that proclaimed a bold and daring mission: Opening the Highways to All Mankind. Driving had been an elitist pursuit—until the Model-T came along. Suddenly, Ford democratized the road. That origin story became Mr. Mulally’s North Star as he mounted Ford’s successful turnaround.

An origin story does more than focus an organization. A shared history binds individuals to a community and imbues a group with identity. It provides the halo of credibility because of those enduring values. What values are illustrated in your organization’s origin story? How do those same values drive your organization today?

Before you mine your company archives, I give you one parting thought. Creating inspirational communications is a partnership between you and your communicator. Think of yourselves as the Avengers. Your superpower is leading. You bring your values. Your business acumen. Your insight. And your communicator’s superpower is storycraft.

So please, make yourself available. Please invite your communicator to important meetings. And by all means, please flow critical information so your storytelling partner can help you deliver the shiver with stories that engage your funders and jolt constituents into action. The world awaits your inspirational stories!