Lead with stories

Spielberg’s “Lincoln” portrays the former president as a masterful storyteller. Learn how narrative leadership can transform your institution.

Steven Spielberg’s recent movie “Lincoln” explores the final four months of the president’s life as he tries to gain approval for the 13th Amendment. In a time of enormous strain, Lincoln urges members of Congress to vote for the amendment that would abolish slavery before the end of the Civil War. The movie captures Lincoln’s transformative leadership in this crucial time in U.S. history.

In the film, Lincoln pauses frequently to recount stories to his cabinet, his aides, or those around him. In fact, one character roars in frustration, “Don’t tell us another story!”

But Lincoln’s perpetual storytelling is more than folksy reflection. Lincoln shrewdly understands that storytelling lies at the heart of excellent leadership. His stories give both his friends and opponents reprieve from their high tempers and frustrations during the crisis of war. The stories also convey Lincoln’s vision and convictions in a non-preaching way, as he sets them in other places and times in history.

Lincoln’s character in the film reminds us that good leaders tell good stories about who they are and about what kind of institutions they lead. But most of us have neither Lincoln’s imagination nor a director like Spielberg to help us with timing. And while we know that stories are important, how do we lead organizations with them?

Richard L. Hester and Kelli Walker-Jones offer theory and practice in their Sustaining Pastoral Excellence project’s book on narrative leadership, “Know Your Story and Lead with It.”

Here are just a few of their insights on how to lead with stories:

  • Most of us have been taught that “good leaders take charge and lead out of their own ideas and visions.” But such leaders are only interested in their own stories, suggest the authors. Leaders who provide “narrative leadership,” instead understand both their own stories and those of others. Narrative leadership recognizes that there is never just one story and values curiosity about others over hierarchy.
  • Good leaders are “not-knowing” rather than all-knowing. They take “a humble stance” towards what they know and ask lots of questions that grow out of the stories they elicit from individuals or groups. They set aside certainty, in order to hear “something new, something different, something that would not be heard if one moved forward knowingly.” They admit to not-knowing, when appropriate, like Tolkien’s Frodo, who tells the secret council, “I’ll take the ring into Mordor, though I do not know the way.”
  • Organizational leaders need to maintain an attitude of “relentless optimism,” the theological view that God is always at work in our stories to bring about God’s kingdom. We need to tell the stories that acknowledge and express problems, but our stories must also reflect God’s “persistent, compassionate presence,” if we are to lead effectively.
  • Stories work in part because they provide the listeners with an “overhearing experience.” Overhearing combines distance and participation. So an organization member can listen as a leader tells a story and still have room to “reflect, accept, reject, or wonder.” There is little room for this in direct address, say Hester and Walker-Jones.