Storytelling as a leadership and HR competency

by Michael Haberman on January 23, 2019 · 1 comment


Telling the right stories can make you an effective leader.

I am reading the book Leadership in Turbulent Times by Doris Kearns Goodwin. It is a biographical comparison of Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, and Lyndon B. Johnson. She feels that these four men had many traits in common that made them leaders during trying times. One of the commonalities that she saw as being particularly important was that each was a consummate storyteller. People would gather around them, even early in their careers to hear them tell stories, which they used to illustrate their points. I have written about storytelling several times, you can read those blog posts at Storytelling: A Key HR Competency? , The Importance of Storytelling In HR and Business, The art of the story: A #SHRM18 Interview with Alfredo Castro, and the one republished below as Storytelling as the ninth HR competency. The ability to weave a good story in order to make a lasting impression and to improve your chance of making your point cannot be ignored. Author, consultant, writer, and storyteller Bernadette Jiwa says that “A story is the most powerful catalyst for creating change” and it is an essential business skill. Below is my blog post about storytelling being the ninth HR competency. Read on and see if you don’t agree.

I am preparing a presentation on culture. As I have done my research it has become apparent that “storytelling” as a way of connecting new employees to the history of the culture is vitally important. In the SHRM Learning System, there are eight competencies that students of HR are taught. Two of these deal with culture and communication. I think a key skill related to these two competencies is the skill of storytelling.

Tell a story

In 2011 I read a blog post that had nothing to do with human resources. It was called The One Essential Key to Developing Your Social Media Influence. The author, Joshua Leatherman, says “The greatest predictor of social media success is also the most challenging to master; it is the ability to tell a story well in very few words.” He went on to say:

“Those who succeed in social media, those who have the ability to influence the behavior of others, are master storytellers.  They have learned how to graft powerful words together that pique emotion, stimulate a need, elicit a vision, and produce engagement.”

A bell went off in my head and I thought HR! Piquing an emotion, stimulating a need, eliciting a vision and producing engagement are wonderful ways to attract and attach and retain workers. Tell them a compelling story to attract them, to help satisfy a need, to get them to see what the organization is about and to get them engaged in their work. This is what helps communicate the culture. It gets people more quickly engaged to the organization. After all who doesn’t enjoy a good story? Since more and more of us use social media I thought his topic dovetailed quite well with HR.

Developing the skill

In 2012 I came across a book by Stephen Denning called The Leader’s Guide to Storytelling. The subtitle is mastering the art and discipline of business narrative. Denning’s contention is that storytelling should be a key competency for ALL business leaders. Storytelling has been around for as long as humans have been able to speak. It was how information and learning were passed down from generation to generation before writing. However, as we came into the age of reason, especially in the business world, we quit using storytelling. We let cold hard facts speak.

Denning says: “The choice for leaders in business and organizations is not whether to be involved in storytelling….but whether to use storytelling unwittingly and clumsily, or intelligently and skillfully. Management fads may come and go, but storytelling is fundamental to all nations, societies, and cultures and has been so since time immemorial.”

The question then becomes “how do you develop good storytelling skills?”

Possible answers

I am open for answers on this question of how you develop good storytelling skills, but here are some of my suggestions:

  • Read good stories. Fiction, non-fiction, blogs, articles, news. They all involve the ability to tell a story. Did something grab your attention? What was it? Why did you find it compelling?
  • If you have an opportunity, take a creative writing class, whether you think you can write or not. You will be able to do a bit better when you are done.
  • Take a journalism class, in fact, I think this should be required in all HR degree programs.
  • Take a class on being a stand-up comedian. All comedians are storytellers. One of my favorites was an old Borscht Belt comedian named Myron Cohen. He was a favorite of Johnny Carson. I am not Jewish, so I did not really relate to the stories he told but he told them so well I would still laugh. He was a wonderful storyteller.

I am not suggesting you give up your livelihood to become a reporter or comedian, I am suggesting the skills that you might acquire would serve you well in being able to craft a good narrative. Think about how you can incorporate a story into your talent acquisition and your employee communication. Perhaps you will find it pays major dividends and you just may have some fun with it too. Make storytelling the ninth HR competency.


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