“Storytelling” Is A Fine Thing To Do, But Leaders Shouldn’t Have All The Fun

Written by Mike Shapiro | | February 1, 2018

How many times have you heard this one: “Great leaders are great storytellers.”

It seems there’s always some “next thing” that sounds simple and easy, while promising great results. Complex and difficult things hurt too much, it seems.  (Remember The One Minute Manager with its “three easy-to-master management techniques”? Remember managing by walking around?)

Now we’re hearing you can dispense with all the complicated management and leadership theory and just — tell stories. Seems like a great way to:

  • Call attention to instances of people in your area doing things right and getting the right results.
  • Bring in examples from other industries to spark ideas for new ways of doing things.
  • Borrow classic tales from famous novels, movies, songs, fairy tales and mythology as analogies and metaphors your folks can apply to their daily work.
  • Show off your wit and wisdom and overall coolness.

“Hey, I can do that,” you say. You can almost feel the tension melting away as you smilingly turn your tedious Friday morning Hangouts meeting into “Story Time,” swapping your role as corporate manager for that of a Yoda-like wizard, shaman or wise one. All the worry about challenges from competitors, looming deadlines, late changes to the specs, and cost overruns left “down in the weeds” as you lift everyone’s spirits — and your own — quoting lyrics from You Can’t Always Get What You Want, spinning metaphorical images of tortoises and hares and The Three Bears and waxing philosophical about the business applications of the three rules of Road House

Guys: IT’S BEEN DONE. IT’S OLD AND IT’S BORING. Worse yet, hidden inside this high-sounding, seemingly harmless and even benevolent management tool is an underlying theme of soul-killing (and initiative-killing) paternalism.

Here are a few problems with the underlying assumptions of manager story telling:

  • The workers — not the manager — will be able to identify the best stories worth putting out there.
  • The people who did the work — not the manager — make the most credible witnesses to what happened.
  • Being the manager does not give a person the right to appropriate the stories rightfully belonging to the people who did the work.

Managers can facilitate by introducing topics and speakers and highlighting take-home messages, but real leaders encourage others to tell their own stories.



  • Make it a regular habit at your meetings to have the people who did the work tell what they did and how they did it.
  • When your folks are heads-down on a particular challenge, encourage them to picture themselves at a time in the near future telling a story about how they faced it down with creative solutions and workarounds.
  • Model good behavior by letting people know when you see them doing things right and getting the right results.