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The power of storytelling: a "there-and-back-again story."

Beware: characters like Baron Munchausen (retrieved 12/21/22 from create and tell fanciful stories to draw you in.

Storytelling is a powerful leadership attribute and goes a long way in shaping organizational culture. We’ve been wired as humans to understand and appreciate stories. Our history of sitting around a fire while a wise sage told a tale is one of our earliest known practices. Stories leave us with a message to ponder, reflect, and reshape our perspective. Communal stories helped tribes develop their values, norms, and morals. There is also a great deal of imagery that is part of storytelling: days that were less hectic and frantic, the powerful bond of a sense of community through a more meaningful connection, and the act of conversation and feeling heard. It is where and how much of our verbal language is learned – and if language is the common bond in nation-building, certainly it can go a long way in organization-building. So, it’s no wonder that storytelling remains one of the simplest and most powerful ways to help inspire a tribe.

Stories within the organization play a similar role. We often use them to inspire others, create a shared vision, highlight our organizational heroes, and remember those who made the organization great. So, this morning when this article popped up,, it reminded me of a storytelling encounter from years ago.

Fairly junior in my career, I worked with a younger female executive who had a pretty important position, the title, and ego to go with it. Her motto, “facts tell, stories sell.” A powerful statement about the ability to use storytelling to influence others. She was young and energetic; some might even say she was charismatic. She was quite a piece of work however - mean-spirited, spiteful, and ready to get a dig in at any moment. Sad, because her message about the power of stories was so compelling. A terrific reminder that not all storytellers have your best interests in mind.

Transformational leadership and charisma:

When Burn’s introduced his transformational leadership approach in the early 1980s, it contained four important ingredients to great, or transformational, leadership:

1. Idealized influence through charisma

2. Inspirational motivation

3. Intellectual stimulation

4. Individualized consideration

In 1998, Bass countered the idea of charisma as an important quality of leadership (using House's 1976 work), citing despotic leaders like Idi Amin, Hitler, Pol Pot and others. He then coined the term pseudotransformational leadership, referring to the leadership equivalent of a wolf in sheep’s clothing. An academic spat, nonetheless, it is an important if not sometimes ignored topic in leadership. The idea of overly charismatic leadership can lead individuals to buy into the ideology of an individual rather than that of the organization or its vision.

Leader behaviors

Effects on followers

It should be noted that Houses’ use of follower extends beyond that of team member, as highly charismatic leaders have been known to draw in members from all aspects of the organization. Additionally, follower is never intended to be a derogatory term, we often call on leaders to move into a follower role, ensuring that other team members can be in the spot-light. A pseudotransformational leader would never allow for this.

While many of these behaviors, like increased confidence are ideal, they are not in this sense when the confidence does not come from mastery of topic or task, but rather through false bravado. Like increased confidence, many of these leader behaviors are beneficial and desirable, but within moderation and balance with others. Take Cuddy, Fiske, and Glick (2013) work that recognized the need for leadership competence, but without warmth to balance it, resentment is likely to follow.

Pseudotransformational leaders will lead you to believe that they have your best interests at heart, however, will likely be the first to toss you under a fast-moving bus, will take credit for your work, discredit you by any means necessary, and frequently rely on a coercive power-base. Sometimes we need to include stories with a powerful lesson to remind us that not all that glitters is gold.

In conclusion, storytelling remains a powerful tool in the toolkit of any leader. Anyone aspiring to improve their own leadership quotient should have great stories in their toolkit. The moral of this story: be careful to whom you listen. Not all “leaders” have the best interest of the organization or you in their sights…be careful to whom you listen!

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