Fall 2013
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The Public Manager

Great Leaders Are Great Story Tellers

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Paul Smith, Lead with a Story (AMACOM, 2012)

Reviewed by Tabatha Pilgrim Thompson

At the age of six, a little boy named George received a new hatchet as a gift. Eager to use his present, George went in search of objects to chop down. That was when he saw it—the most beautiful cherry tree standing all alone, an easy victim. He cut down the tree with little more than a thought. Unfortunately for George, this was his father's favorite cherry tree. When his upset father approached George to ask him if knew what had happened, little George Washington, later the first president of the United States, said, "Father, you know I cannot tell a lie! I did cut it with my little hatchet."

We've all heard some version of this story—whether from an elementary school teacher or our parents—and it is very easy to recall its moral: One should never be afraid to take responsibility and tell the truth. However, would you have been as inclined to remember and practice this moral if your teacher or parent had simply stated it as in the previous sentence? Probably not. This phenomenon of telling a story to demonstrate a behavior or principle that you wish people to emulate is what Paul Smith addresses in his book Lead with a Story.

Why Tell Stories?

Smith dedicates the first chapter of his book to answering the question: "Why tell stories?" He begins the chapter as he does almost every chapter in the book—with a story to show how stories can demonstrate behaviors and principles in a more powerful, effective way than a simple memo or speech. For example, a short pep talk on how to build courage and resilience in the face of constant failure might resonate more with your audience if you told a story about Abraham Lincoln's rise to become the 16th president of the United States—with his decades of failure before and after.

Smith offers 10 most compelling reasons why storytelling is so effective:

  1. Storytelling is simple.
  2. Storytelling is timeless.
  3. Stories are demographic-proof. One example of why this reason is so compelling is due to the increased generational gaps of the information age. Whether you are young or old, grew up with a typewriter or an iPhone, a good story will grab everyone's attention.
  4. Stories are contagious.
  5. Stories are easy to remember.
  6. Stories inspire. Unlike PowerPoint slides, colorful charts, or detailed handouts, stories have the ability to make your audience excited and motivated, and give them the opportunity to relate the characters and situations discussed in the story to their own lives and work.
  7. Stories appeal to all types of learners.
  8. Stories fit better where most of the learning happens in the workplace.
  9. Stories put the listener in a mental learning mode.
  10. Telling stories shows respect for your audience. It's often more powerful and rewarding to let your audience derive the conclusion of what to do from a story than telling them explicitly what they should or shouldn't do.

How to Read This Book

Smith lays out the book using five leadership themes, which all start with the letter E.

  1. Envision success: How to set goals for the future of your organization or project.
  2. Create an environment for winning: How to create a culture rooted in collective values and conducive to trust, diversity, and collaboration.
  3. Energize the team: How to motivate and inspire.
  4. Educate people: How to provide constructive feedback and teach important lessons.
  5. Empower others: How to delegate authority and give power to others' ideas.

The leadership themes are further divided into various chapters that focus on a specific challenge or situation leaders may encounter within their teams or organizations. Each chapter includes two to four stories that illustrate best practices and behaviors when encountering situations and ends with a summary of the key points.
Smith is also clear from the beginning that these stories are merely starting points. We all have our own stories, and everyone has the potential to be a good storyteller. The key step is making the structure and style of your story work for you. To this end, Smith also includes useful how-to sections at the end of each chapter to help new (and old) storytellers craft their own effective stories.


As Smith points out, a central element to storytelling is a good story structure, which he represents using the acronym CAR (context, action, and result). Smith goes a few steps further to break down the structure of an effective story by highlighting the additional key components below; the bolded letters spell out STORY MAKERS.

  • Context
    • Subject or main character
    • Treasure or what the main character wants
    • Obstacle or villain getting in the way
  • Action
  • Result
    • Right lesson the audience should have learned
    • WhY you told the story

In addition to these basic structural elements, a good story also incorporates

  • Metaphors and analogies
  • Appeal to emotion: Reminiscent of Dan and Chip Heath's book Switch, where leaders are encouraged to find ways to "motivate the elephant," Smith points out that emotion can be just as important in decision making as reason and logic.
  • Keeping it real
  • An Element of surprise: A surprise can help grab your audience's attention at the beginning or help your audience remember the story better when held until the end.
  • Recasting your audience in the story
  • Stylistic elements.

The mnemonic we are given is CAR = STORY MAKERS, which is what Smith hopes readers will be after some additional practice. Although every leadership book out there has its own catchy lingo, this mnemonic is helpful to remembering Smith's key points in making the most out of a story you're trying to tell.

Getting Started

Aside from the general barrier of getting over one's fear of public speaking (which can be a significant challenge in itself), Smith notes that aspiring storytellers must overcome four common barriers:

  1. I don't know where to find good stories. Don't wait until you need a story to start to look for one—find them now!
  2. I have trouble remembering the stories when I need them. Write them down.
  3. I'm not sure where to tell my stories. Tell them when it's natural or "where leadership normally happens."
  4. I don't think stories belong in a formal memo or email. It's common practice in current business writing to write the way we speak. Thus, storytelling can be a natural go-to for enhancing a dry email or memo.

The bottom line, according to Smith, is to do what feels right for you as you begin your journey to becoming a master storyteller. Your first stories probably will feel weird or awkward, but you will get better with practice and time.
True storytellers demonstrate a profound respect and passion for the story they are telling, just like true leaders naturally demonstrate a profound respect and passion for their people and their organizations. As Smith says, "Every great leader is a great storyteller."

About the Author

Tabatha Pilgrim Thompson is a program associate at the Partnership for Public Service, where she works on the Excellence in Government Fellows program.

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