Leadership Starts With A Story

By Jared Karol & Dr. Joel A. Brown


Imagine: You’re a new manager. You’re about to lead your first meeting with your new team. Most of the team doesn’t know you well, and no one from the team knows you in the capacity as their new manager. You want to inspire and motivate your team, and you want to generate enthusiasm and excitement for the projects you’ll be working on together. Most of all, you want to build trust and safety so your team will follow you and believe in your vision. You want to convey confidence and make a good first impression. The question is: How do you that?

You have several choices:

1) You can tell your team about your strategic goals and the processes you’ll be implementing to execute those goals.

2) You can put together a dry PowerPoint presentation with fancy graphs and charts that focuses on organizational metrics and revenue targets for the next three quarters––all the while showing off your business acumen and expertise.

Or, you can be personable and vulnerable and tell a story. You can reveal something personal about yourself that helps your team understand who you are and why you care about the work you’ll be doing together. You can remove your “corporate” veneer and let people see the real you – the person who cares deeply about other people and building a successful team where everyone feels like they belong.

I’m sure you can guess which option is better.

It’s been said before, but it’s worth saying again: We are hardwired to listen to stories. It’s how our brains work. Data, numbers and logic are helpful (and at times necessary), but none of that is going to inspire your team to greatness. Even the biggest data nerds need to hear stories. The bottom line is this: great leaders know how to build strong and enduring relationships, and they create psychological safety on their teams by telling compelling and authentic stories.

Here are just a few of the myriad benefits that you’ll experience as a leader when you connect with your team using personal narratives and storytelling:

1. Stories break down unnecessary hierarchical structures.

When you are vulnerable and share something personal with your team, they will see you as a real person with a real life outside of work. Storytelling creates equity that makes it easier to foster effective communication, engage in critical decision-making, improve recruitment and retention, and bolster team dynamics. Your team will see you as their peer, and not as a taskmaster or a commander who they must obey at all costs.

2. Stories deepen relationships.

“Good relationships keep us happy and healthy. Period.” That’s according to this 75-year Harvard study. Strong relationships keep us fulfilled and inspire us to want to come to work each day. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average American works nearly 50 hours a week. Would you rather work with a complete stranger, or work in an environment where there’s understanding and familiarity? When you tell stories, you give those you lead insight into who you are. As a leader, storytelling makes you more dynamic and accessible, and strengthens the bonds you have with those around you. Business is based on knowledge, but business success depends on relationships. Stories can transform a transactional relationship with a colleague into a collaborative partnership.

3. Stories create agency for yourself and others.

Undoubtedly, personal stories express who we are. When you share stories as a leader, you are giving others permission to share their stories and be more open. Additionally, you are creating an environment that says it’s okay to be who you are and bring your entire self to work.  Vulnerability is contagious, and this energy can make people––individually and collectively––feel validated, empowered, and more comfortable taking risks. A person who feels “seen” and “visible” within an organization will have the agency and personal power to take the organization to new heights.

4. Stories unite your team under a common purpose.

When team members are given agency to share their stories freely, you will create a work environment that is filled with more empathy, equity, and energy. Each person will feel like they are part of something more than themselves, and they will want to contribute to a larger cause.  Stories create alignment with the larger organizational mission and vision, and help create synergy between all segments within an enterprise.

5.  Stories ignite greater creativity and improved innovation.  

The practice of storytelling invites people to use non-traditional aspects of their employee toolkit.  One of the oft-cited skill sets needed for 21st century leadership is creativity, and the act of being creative helps employees tap into their full brain capacity and reinforce the connection between logic, rationality, and emotionality. Greater innovation requires the whole brain (not just one hemisphere) to be utilized in a more expansive way, and creative arts such as storytelling prime employees to be more innovative thinkers and leaders.


As a new manager or an established leader, the most important thing you can do is build trust, connection, and belonging among your team. Stories can provide the connective tissue that will bring people in an organization together. By telling stories, you can shorten the timeframe for building team cohesion. By sharing personal narratives, you can eliminate the psychological distance between yourself and those who are there to support you. If you want to be an atypical leader, don’t rely on the typical norms to guide your conversations. Use the power of story to facilitate introductions, build effective relationships, and sustain long-term success.