[April 26, 2017] My grandmother enthralled us with riveting stories of bravery, tragedy, and love of family in her travels across the Great Plains of the American Midwest. She was just a girl when her parents and siblings began their journey in a Conestoga wagon pulled slowly by two large horses. This was something us grandkids had only read about in school textbooks; here was a person who did it.
Her storytelling taught us far more than we could imagine. Centered on a small group of Baptists, those families worked their way across hundreds of miles of wild territory. Danger, she told us, was around every corner. Her grandkids were young; I was the second oldest and had just entered grade school but we were all excited anytime “grandma”old stories about her childhood.
“Storytelling is the essential human activity. The harder the situation, the more essential it is.” – Tim O’Brien, American novelist
I can remember her stories like they were told yesterday. They stuck with me. It is not a surprise that an effective method of teaching about leadership is through stories. Storytelling motivates and focuses our attention; all the while, expanding our minds. It makes us sit back and take in the whole of the story without the pressure to look at every detail.
A good story, or parable, tells us about the “whole,” those things that go beyond a simple list of things that happened. It informs us about the intangible, like bravery, fear, love, and leadership. In the best storytellers, events come alive and put us in a sort of trance where we absorb the meaning in some mysterious way.
Now it’s my turn as a retired leader to do the storytelling. One parable I tell to my young, future leaders, is the parable of the pencil. It’s cute but they rarely forget it and the story seems to boost their desire to do more to improve themselves. That alone is worth the effort of the story.
Mastering the skill of telling stories is often underestimated but its value is priceless to leadership. U.S. President Abraham Lincoln is well known for his storytelling as a means to persuade and was an integral part of his leadership style.1 We can learn from him and others who’ve mastered the storytelling skill.
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