Telling stories

Tim Pawlik, our esteemed President of the Association for Academic Surgery, asked that we all read Donald Phillips Lincoln on Leadership prior to this week’s strategic planning/ leadership retreat.  I’ll give it a modest recommendation; while it’s not at the top of my most compelling books I’ve read in the last year, it is an easy read. Most importantly, Phillips uses one of Lincoln’s own leadership devices- that of influencing through conversation and storytelling- to make his point throughout the book.  He opens the chapter with an epigraph from Lincoln, in which he explains, “They say I tell a great many stories.  I reckon I do but I have learned from long experience that plain people, take them as they run, are more  easily influenced through the medium of  a broad and humorous illustration than in any other way.”

This particular chapter was arguably my favorite from the book, both because I always love a good story (see my interest in qualitative research and my collection of modern fiction here) and because it generated the most thought from me.  I firmly recognize and acknowledge the value of effective communication for leaders.  What hadn’t really occurred to me before was the importance of a “good yarn” in connecting to people, in motivating them, in fostering loyalty, in teaching.  As much as the scientists among us want to believe that people respond to data, the truth is that people are by nature social creatures and therefore are more likely to act from hearing stories, not by being given numbers and pie charts.

Being the inquisitive soul I am, I did a bit of “homework” looking into this concept of storytelling, leadership, and how to effectively use stories as a leader.  Certainly an element of self-interest is present since I would like to learn how to do this more effectively.  Julian Stodd writes, blogs, and educates on new ideas in learning in “The Social Age” and provides a particularly thoughtful introduction to the role of storytelling in social leadership.  If you can’t bear to read the rest of his blog post (though you should), the first image in it is a delightful and parsimonious model for how to use storytelling effectively.  I’m also curious to get a copy of Paul Smith’s Lead with a Story after reading this interview in Forbes.    His “Seven Elements to turn a good story into a great story” seems an important lesson.  Finally, from the HBR there is this:

Freytag’s Pyramid

Freytag’s pyramid, embedded in a March HBR blog describing the power of storytelling as a strategic tool.


If you’re anticipating hearing more stories from me as an information delivery tool, you would be right.  I’ve always appreciated the value of a good story as a means to connecting our common human experiences.  Thanks to this week, I also better understand the relevance of a good story to motivating a team.