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Stories and Leadership

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Putting Stories To Work
Hero On A Mission
Shawn Callahan
Donald Miller
Esseen arvioitu lukuaika on 11 minuuttia.

Stories are part of our daily experience.

Stories are a fundamental part of being human. One might not be aware of it but much of our internal processing happens via using stories. People use stories to make sense of things and to explain what is in their surroundings.

In a 1944 experiment psychologists Fritz Heider and Marianne Simmel created a simple animation where geometrical shapes move around and seemingly interact with each other. After watching the animation people were asked what they had seen. Instead of saying what it was, geometrical shapes moving around in a 2D plane, they would tell a story of how one shape protects the other shape or chases away another one. “Heider and Simmel showed that we just can’t help but make meaning out of everything we see. We are averse to uncertainty and ambiguity. We do all we can to create mental closure so we can get on with things, particularly if we feel threatened. And we bring this clarity to an experience by telling ourselves a story” (Callahan 2016a)

A similar experiment was conducted 75 years later, and the results were similar. (Ratajska, Brown, Chabris 2020)

Both, while leading oneself as well as others, understanding the power of stories and the art of storytelling are a key to success. Shawn Callahan quotes Harvard University psychologist Howard Gardner to show how powerful stories are “Stories of identity narratives that help individuals think about and feel who they are, where they come from, and where they are headed – constitute the single most powerful weapon in the leader’s literary arsenal” (Callahan 2016b). Storytelling in leadership is a wide topic, this essay explores some aspects of how stories are helpful in the context of leading others and oneself.


Using stories in Leadership.

 Hearing that stories are “the single most powerful weapon in a leader’s literary arsenal” is both exciting and frightening. History shows both positive and negative examples of how narratives were used by skillful leaders to influence and change the world. In the book Putting Stories to Work, Shawn Callahan explains both how to master business storytelling and why stories are so effective. Learning to use stories can be helpful with big leadership visions as well with small everyday initiatives and impact one makes in all aspects of life. The following points look specifically why stories work and how stories can be useful in a business context.

Why stories work:

Stories are a very effective tool to influence and communicate.  Callahan names three reasons that make stories so effective. He calls them the stories superpowers.

1) Stories are memorable. Studies show that stories or narratives are considerably more memorable than lists, bullet points or expository texts.

2) Stories convey emotions. Contrary to the believe that the best decision are made purely on a rational level, studies show that emotions are very important to sound decision making. This became evident when studying people who had medical conditions where the emotional part of the brain was inactive or damaged. While those patients could speak and calculate, their ability to make simple, sound decisions was reduced.

Additionally emotions motivate actions. Joy, anger, happiness, sadness, and other emotions move people to act. When using stories, one does not only convey facts, which are less memorable but also emotions which initiate action and connections. In fact, storyteller “and listener brain activity exhibit widespread coupling during communication”. (Callahan 2016c) This has many benefits, one of them being creating empathy and connection.

3) Stories are meaningful. As mentioned in the experiment from Heider and Simmer above. People crave for meaning, they ask or at least wonder about the Why and as soon as the why is answered it is much easier to follow a cause, join an initiative and be motivated to change.

When to use stories:

When talking about business storytelling, the intention is to weave stories into different types of communications, be it casual team conversations, presentations, or negotiations. Generally, people don’t see or detect stories if used skillfully. Ideally the usage of story should be invisible, so instead of prefacing a story with the words “Let me tell you a story” one better just starts to tell the story.

Callahan talks about different story patterns that address different problems. Connection stories can be used when meeting new people and one wants to build rapport. Instead of simply listing one’s credentials or qualities with the risk of coming across of prideful, one can tell a story from one’s personal life that fits the audience and illustrates ones character. In that way the listeners can make own conclusions about who they are dealing with.

In a similar way, if a company wants to communicate their success. It is better to tell a story of success instead of just spelling out a list.

Additional types of stories that are effective in leadership are the clarity story and the influence story.


Clarity Stories:

It is common that people throughout an organization are not fully aware of, or understand the vision, mission, or strategy of their organization. On top of that, business strategies change, and many people resist change since it comes with uncertainty. When change happens and there is a lack of explanations, employees will come up with their own explanation, often those do not serve the organization well.  It’s the task of leaders to manage change effectively (Kotter 2001)

A common way to introduce a new strategy is a meeting with a slide deck containing bullet points and facts about the change and the new strategy. Usually, facts are not remembered. Good leaders communicate a strategy or a vision via a clarity story.

As the name suggests, the purpose of the clarity story is to bring about clarity. It is a simple 4 part structure that includes the following parts:

“Part 1:  In the past… (how things were before the change happened)

Part 2:  Then something happened… (the event/s that caused the problem or opportunity)

Part 3: So now…. (The decision/s made to counter the problem or take advantage of the opportunity)

Part 4: In the future…. (The likely outcome)” (Callahan 2016d)

The phrases used can be changed but if the structure is changed, it might end up not being a story anymore but an argument. A story is a set of events where the listener wants to know what happens next. Arguments usually triggers counter arguments in the listeners while stories invite on a thought journey.


Influence stories:

To influence is a crucial part of leadership. As mentioned above, arguments are no way to influence people.  Studies show that if one believes something strongly, the mind goes to great lengths to disarm opposing standpoints. Stories on the other hand do not get as so much pushback since they are not perceived as arguments. “The mark of good business story is that is changes behavioir and inspires action” (Callahan 2016e)

The structure of an influence story is as follows.

Part 1: Acknowledge the anti-story.

Part 2: Share your example (the story)

Part 3: Make your case.

Part 4: Reiterate your point.

The influence story is a good way to tackle anti-stories. Anti-Stories are stories that one foresees to arise as a response to a new initiative or stories that have risen already. They often reflect the true concerns of employees and must be addressed. Acknowledging them alone has already a disarming effect. Anti-stories can sound like: “We’ve done that type of initiative in the past and it was a failure so why should it work this time” or “Management said it was going to do X but now it is doing Y” Callahan continually stresses the point that to be aware of those anti- stories and also of all positive business stories within the company, leaders need to “have their ears on the ground”. Knowing what is going on in the organization is key to effective storytelling and leadership.


One example of a successfully acknowledging the anti-story was when Steve Jobs introduced iCloud.  Apple had previously tried to build a cloud service, but it did not work out. By mentioning it Jobs disarmed the anti-story and the audience was at ease. Jobs said: So you might be thinking, why would you trust them, they brought us MobileMe. It wasn’t our finest hour, let me say that. But we learned a lot” (Callahan 2016f) The rest of the presentation was a success.


Creating culture:

A positive company culture can make a big difference. Gallup reports that people who feel connected to their organizations culture are 3,7 times more likely to be engaged at work, 5,2 times more likely to recommend their organization as a great workplace, 68% less likely to feel burned out regularly and 55% less likely to look for new jobs. (Gallup 2024).

However, when there is a mismatch between the rhetoric and the actual practices, employees may be critical of the term company culture and initiatives that try to create culture.

MIT professor Edgar Schein says “The only thing of real importance that leaders do is to create and manage culture” A companies culture is made up of the beliefs, values and assumptions held by employees. Conversely leaders need to listen and understand the current culture as they attempt to bring about change.

Likely just deciding a new culture by simply stating and repeating vision, mission and values that were decided in a board room is what creates frustration about culture within a company with employees. Callahan promotes a better approach. To find out the current culture of an organization but also of a people group, nation, or village, one needs to listen to the stories that are told. When Callahan works with companies to improve their culture, he would spend time and listen to the stories told by employees.  “A corporate culture is made up of stories that are told, so if you want to change the culture, you need to change the stories” (Callahan 2016g) Instead of or at least in addition to visions on walls and values in the hallways leaders should amplify the good and dampen the bad stories. Meaning that they need to find the stories where the companies’ values are implemented already and tell those stories.

As mentioned earlier stories are more memorable and concrete, the inspire emotions and actions. Instead of stating that one value is “integrity” which is a vague, unconcreted and easy to forget, one should find real stories within the organization that provide an example. Callahan illustrates this with an example of a bank he worked with. A young lawyer “just finished an internal project advising another part of the bank when he realized he’d made a small but significant error. He didn’t think anyone would notice and for a moment he considered just letting it slide. But then he thought, “I don’t want to be that type of sloppy lawyer”. So, he went and explained what had happened to his boss, who then informed the internal customer. The error was fixed and the lawyer was praised for his honest and diligence. That’s integrity” (Callahan 2016h) Telling stories that happened within the company and illustrate the values or culture will change beliefs and assumptions within the organization.

Stories and self – leadership.

In the book Hero on a Mission author and businessman Donald Miller combines his research on writing and stories with the psychiatrist Victor Frankl’s teaching on Logotherapy and proposes a practical model of self-leadership to experience meaning and success.

As seen above, stories are memorable, create emotions and meaning. Those “superpowers of stories” can also be utilized in leading oneself.

Regardless of whether one is aware of it, every person lives and creates a story, and life, does not ask whether one wants to live a story or not but as time passes a story is created.

Some people live a story of meaning and fulfillment while others seem to have lost the plot of their own life, feel meaningless and act as spectators while fate writes their stories. The difference of the two is likely connected to

  1. how much one believes to be, and acts as, the author of one’s life story
  2. which role one plays.


Being the author. Agency and narrative traction.

At the basis of Millers self-leadership model stands the idea of accepting one’s own agency and creating a story in ones life to experience narrative traction.

Narrative traction refers to the degree to which a story or narrative captures and maintains the attention, interest, and emotional investment of its audience or readers.

Agency is the capacity of individuals to act independently and make their own choices.

Psychologists call the believe to be mostly in control of our destiny’s internal locus of control. Opposed to an external locus of control where one (psychologically) surrenders one’s power to outside forces that will control one’s life. Studies suggest that people with internal locus of control correlates to a stronger sense of belonging, less depression, higher wages, and more fulfilling relationships (Miller 2022a)


An almost unreal example of accepting agency is the life and work of Victor Frankl. Frankl was a Viennese psychiatrist who developed logotherapy to help people to find meaning in life. He believed that the main motivator for humans is meaning and that to avoid the sense of meaningless “we distract ourselves with pleasure when we can’t find a sense of meaning”. (Miller 2022b) Frankl, who was Jewish, was transferred to a concentration camp at the start of the second world war. While most of his family, including his wife, where killed, Frankl managed to find meaning under the harshest of circumstances. He observed that those who were able to maintain a sense of purpose and hope were more likely to endure the harsh conditions. Frankl himself focused on the idea that even in the most challenging circumstances, individuals can choose their attitudes and find meaning in their lives.

After surviving the concentration camp, he published the book Men’s Search for Meaning and continued to develop his ideas and work as a psychiatrist in Vienna and abroad.

In simple terms “Frankl’s formula to experience a life of meaning was pragmatic and threefold:

  1. Take action creating a work or performing a deed.
  2. Experience something or encounter someone that you find captivating and that pulls us out of ourselves.
  3. Have an optimistic attitude towards the inevitable challenges and suffering you will experience in life” (Miller 2022c)

The combination of agency, and a purpose one takes action towards every day creates narrative traction and an experience of meaning. When trying to find that purpose, reflection is needed. A purpose or story can change over time but the key aspect is to create a story and to take action towards it on a regular basis. In an ideal case it includes a community and other people, “someone captivating that pulls us out of ourselves”. When building that story of meaning, the role one plays is also important since performing negative actions will not create long-term meaning.

Characters of a stories.

Typically, a good story has four different characters. The victim, the villain, the hero, and the guide. Many known stories and movies such as, Star Wars, Harry Potter, Karate Kid, Lord of the Rings, and others include those characters. Mostly these characters are persons but sometimes they might be concepts or ideas.

Victims are part of the story because the make the villain look bad and the hero look good, they are helpless and do not transform. Villains want to make others look small. Often the story hints that they have past trauma or pain which is sometimes shown by a physical handicap or challenge, like the Joker in Batman.

Heroes, unlike the word might suggest, are not characterized by strength and power, at least not in the beginning. Heroes usually are the second weakest characters (after victims) but they face their challenges and transform from confused or weak to heroic. Like the villain, heroes often also have a challenging back story but unlike the villains they accept their own agency and bring about good.

Guides, usually depicted as older characters to suggest that they have experience and wisdom, are there to help the hero, often the story suggests that the guides have gone through challenges before themselves.

In Frankl’s formula for meaning, as well as in his experience in the camp, one can see that he and others who found meaning displayed heroic traits: while being weak and challenged beyond imagination they faced their challenges and transform towards good.

Miller suggest, that, if one wants to live a life of meaning, it is key to be the author of the story and act with the characteristics of a Hero. Philosophical discussion on how much control we actual have do not really matter in this case since it is rather a practical and not philosophical approach. Frankl had very little ability to choose but still he chose to transform and use his mind to find meaning.



 I stumbled onto stories in leadership by accident. I was unaware of how deeply stories are a part the human experience and finding meaning and success, both in one’s own life and as a part of a bigger organization. The stories we tell in our team create the culture of our team. The stories we tell ourselves, conscientiously or unconscientiously will create our life’s outcome to a large degree. Not every business or person tells or believes in stories of meaning or success. For me it’s key to train and practice agency because that’s what lets us improve, create, and change stories into better ones. Both when leading ourselves and others, stories can be a great tool for bigger successes, more meaning and better teams. What is the story you live? What is the story of your team?


Callahan, S. 2016a. Putting Stories to Work. Peppersberg Press. 46.

Callahan, S. 2016b. Putting Stories to Work. Peppersberg Press. 131.

Callahan, S. 2016c. Putting Stories to Work. Peppersberg Press. 17.

Callahan, S. 2016d. Putting Stories to Work. Peppersberg Press. 137.

Callahan, S. 2016e. Putting Stories to Work. Peppersberg Press. 101.

Callahan, S. 2016f. Putting Stories to Work. Peppersberg Press. 151.

Callahan, S. 2016g. Putting Stories to Work. Peppersberg Press. 124.

Callahan, S. 2016h. Putting Stories to Work. Peppersberg Press. 20.

Gallup.com 2024. What is Organizational Culture? And Why Does it Matter? Read 1.2.2024


Kotter, J.P. 2001. What Leaders Really Do. Harvard Business Review. Read on 7.12.2023


Miller, D. 2022a. Hero on a Mission. Harper Collins Leadership. 20.

Miller, D. 2022b. Hero on a Mission. Harper Collins Leadership. 34.

Miller, D. 2022c. Hero on a Mission. Harper Collins Leadership. 35.

Ratajska, A. Brown, M. Chabris, C. 2020. Attributing social meaning to animated shapes: A new experimental stady of apparent behaviour.


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