Want to Be a Better Leader? Work on Your Storytelling

I vividly recall a visit from my father last year a few days after his 80th birthday. Reaching this landmark age is quite an achievement in itself, but what dawned on me during his visit was the richness of my dad’s life as he shared stories of his past with his grandsons. I appreciate that he shares not only the fun and happy stories, but the adversity and heartbreak he has faced as well. My father long ago realized that one of the few treasures he has left to give us are the stories and experiences from his life. I never fail to glean something valuable from this man I know so well, and my sons never tire of listening to their Papa.

I was reflecting on the lessons from my father’s visit as I drove to meet a friend for coffee last week. He is a respected senior business leader with responsibility for a large organization and he shared with me that a few of his direct reports are struggling with performance issues and his overall organization is coming off a poor Quarter. After listening to the myriad reasons why he thought his team was struggling, I felt compelled to ask a simple question: “How often do you reflect on your personal business successes and failures with your team and share the detailed lessons with them?”

His blank stare spoke volumes.

As we continued our conversation, he shared with some embarrassment that reflection and sharing were not easy for him. His mindset with regards to his team has long been “I’ve done it and so can you. You are all smart and will figure it out, just like I did.” He also admitted that he had little time to invest in his team because of the hectic schedule he typically keeps. Based on my experience and countless other conversations with leaders, this problem is fairly pervasive in business today. Those of us who are senior leaders are often so busy chasing the “number” or tackling the latest business challenge that we may be leaving our more junior and less experienced colleagues to struggle on their own rather than making the time investment required to help them succeed. We may fail to recognize the positive power of storytelling in coaching our teams to success and the thought of revealing that we may have struggled in front of others may trigger irrational fear.

Four Helpful Ideas for Business Leaders

  • Recognize the power of personal example and your own story. Share your business successes and failures with the team and tell them what you learned and how you improved over time. Dedicate a portion of your team meetings or one-on-one conversations to be a true teacher who is willing to share relevant business successes, failures and lessons from your past…not just holding them accountable for the end result.
  • Break it down. What you think is trivial may be important and helpful to someone without your depth of experience. I strongly suggest starting with the outcome of a past deal, project or business situation (successful or not), and work your way backwards to the very beginning. Give them all the steps and your lessons learned. Be humble enough to admit and own your mistakes.
  • Be a mentor (as someone once was for you). You have done well and been promoted for your hard work and track record of success. Congratulations! Did someone help you along the way? Did you have a mentor or internal advocate to guide and aid you on the journey? As leaders, we all have a responsibility to mentor/coach/develop those in our charge and share our experiences and hard-fought wisdom with them. This will take a time investment you may believe you don’t have, but the ramifications of not developing your people can be seen in high attrition, poor performance and missed goals. You likely have a lot of priorities, but this should make your Top 5 list every week.
  • Your experiences are not necessarily their experiences. If you want the team to follow your example and emulate your success, be open and honest about the challenges they face. Listen to them. Humbly let them know about your own struggles. Their experiences and backgrounds may be very different from your own and each generation learns and develops in a different way. Data suggests that the Millennials and Generation Z desires to know the “why” of what they are being asked to do. Adapt and be flexible with your approach and give them what they are seeking (and desperately need) from you.

If this post resonates and you desire to make changes, the path forward is simple. Be more intentional about making time for your team each week, candidly share your detailed stories (successes and failures), don’t assume anything and meet them where they are (not where you think they should be based on your experiences). They need the tactics, not just the strategy. Some will get it faster than others, but good leaders should desire success that is broadly sustainable and not just driven by a few superstars.

My father’s recent visit reminded me of the power of storytelling and I am grateful for his gift. There is a great mentor, coach and storyteller inside each of you with countless lessons to share. Be wise and let your team learn from your struggles and successes.

Everybody will win when you do.

Randy Hain is an award winning author, executive coach, consultant, speaker and the president of Serviam Partners (

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