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Storytelling – the oxygen of leadership

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Storytelling has for thousands of years been a motivational tool used by all the great leaders and orators of human civilisation. From Aesop and Homer in Ancient Greece, to the Buddha in India, to Jesus Christ in Israel, stories − in the form of myths, legends, allegories, parables, fairy tales and even jokes – have been woven into the fabric of every culture.

Today, nothing has changed about our need for meaningful stories, says Dr Lester Levy, facilitator of the University of Auckland Executive Education course The Leader’s Guide to Storytelling. But in these times of reductionist communications, instant messaging and ‘sound bites’, the art of storytelling has been largely downgraded to something we do for small children, who we assume will rapidly outgrow the need.

Dr Levy himself came to realise the power of storytelling when he became a chief executive at a very young age and found himself embroiled in difficult and confrontational discussions with angry people, about events that had occurred in the organisation before his time. Looking to turn this narrative around, he told a slightly self-deprecating story about an embarrassing incident in his schooldays, which engaged his team and completely changed the nature of their conversations. He subsequently refined the art of storytelling until “it became almost synonymous with who I was”, he says.

Later, as a speaker frequently invited to talk to business organisations about leadership, Dr Levy was happy to be told that the stories he recounted in those presentations were still vivid in peoples’ memories, long after they’d forgotten everything else he said.

Dr Levy’s research has confirmed this phenomenon: “Presentations consisting of facts and figures are quickly forgotten. If you’re lucky, people might remember 15% of such a presentation – but they remember 85% or more of a story, ten, twelve, even twenty years later.”

This is why it is so critical for leaders to inject the oxygen of storytelling into the air that their people breathe. “Stories offer a powerful boost to understanding, and they also help with application and action”, Dr Levy says.

Leadership is mediated through culture, he adds. Storytelling helps to change cultures, and that in turn changes behaviours and enhances performance. So storytelling, for leaders, is a means to an end.

In his course, Dr Levy shows participants how to choose the right story for a particular audience, and how to construct it for maximum impact. “A carefully constructed, usually open-ended story that is tailored to the audience will provoke them to think about its meaning… Above all, your story needs to be inspiring – because it is much easier to motivate people who are inspired.”

“My course offers a scaffold on which to build, and after that it is practice, practice, practice. It is a fun day, quite challenging, inspirational and ultimately transformational. You may start with no clue how to or why you would want to tell a story, but at the end of the day you find yourself telling one that reduces your classmates to tears.”

Dr Lester Levy is widely recognised and respected for his leadership knowledge and research. He was the foundation Head of the New Zealand Leadership Institute at the University of Auckland, where is he is now an Adjunct Professor of Leadership at the University of Auckland’s Graduate School of Management. He is best known for leading a number of very successful organisational performance transformations in both the private and public sector.

Dr Levy facilitates the course The Leader’s Guide to Storytelling



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