Why leaders should use real-life experiences not fables

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —October 7, 2014
Filed in Business storytelling

When we started Anecdote back in 2004 we mainly did culture change projects where we collected stories in an organisation then took people from the company through a facilitated process to help them see the patterns embedded in the anecdotes. Our work was based on the idea that an organisation’s culture is reflected in the stories people tell and if you want to change the culture you must change the stories. We would help the company develop initiatives to help change their stories.

In those early days our clients would approach us for help coaching their leaders how to be better storytellers. They concluded that if we were good at collecting and helping people make sense of stories, we could also help leaders be better storytellers. But when they asked we said no.


We were worried that stories would be misused and people might be manipulative. We knew stories were powerful and we didn’t want them being misused.

But our clients persisted and so we took another look at storytelling and said we would only help leaders if the stories were real life experiences: nothing crafted, borrowed or bent beyond recognition.

Noticing stories

This meant that the leaders had to be more mindful of their own experiences so they would notice things worthy of recounting. They needed a simple way to spot stories. And above all they needed patience. We felt it was much like the brown bear wading in the cold stream waiting for the salmon to leap in front of them so they could catch their next meal. You needed patience to catch stories. From that point on the bear and the fish became the logo for our Storytelling for Leaders program.

Our dedication to not making things up sometimes comes as a surprise to our clients and partners. It seems so easy to take a great story and change a few things to make it your own. But it’s a mistake.

I’ve often heard a leader share a story that I recognise as a common business fable they have found on the web and then massaged the context to make it sound like it happened to them. One of the all-time favourites are the many variations of the NASA janitor who sees his purpose as putting a man on the moon which is also told as the stonecutter and the cathedral builder.

But imagine if you tell a story that you’ve ‘borrowed’ from the internet and one of your employees finds out. How fast do you think that story will spread? And here’s the thing, the next time you share a story, what will your audience be thinking? Yes, they will be wondering if you also purloined this one too. Not the best way to build trust.

We like to leave what we call as big-S storytelling, crafted stories, to Hollywood and the advertising agencies. Our work is to help leaders build the habit of finding and telling their own real-life experiences and sharing with acknowledgement other people’s stories regardless of where you heard or read it.

About  Shawn Callahan

Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one of the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on:

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