Why you should lead with a story
Presenting strategy as a story equips people with a map that helps them visualise and prepare for the journey

The main task of a leader is to help teams achieve goals. This involves guiding people from Point A to Point B: it involves a change journey. This seems simple enough but in reality when leaders propose a new journey people can freak out. People lose the plot about change because change involves literally losing the plot: it’s the loss of a story.

In the 1940s psychologists conducted an experiment in which people were shown two triangles and a circle moving around a screen. Most interpreted the shapes as characters in an unfolding story. The experiment famously shows that people think in stories. We use stories to organise information and work out what it means: stories are the brain’s sense-making mechanism.

Laura is the founder of StoryCode and a former Staff News Reporter at The Times and The Daily Mail.

Photos: Carta Marina, a map of Scandinavia, by Olaus Magnus via Wikipedia. Ship in a bottle by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

We don’t just think in stories. We act in stories as well. We could wake up each morning and contemplate our smallness in an infinite universe but that would result in overwhelm and paralysis so we set goals and embark on journeys to achieve them. Each of these journeys is a story that narrows the world to a manageable scale and helps us avoid the existential abyss.

People have stories about their working lives: where they are going and how they are going to get there. These stories provide purpose, meaning and motivation. When a leader proposes change, people fear they are going to lose a story they may derive considerable comfort from and this can thrust them into a state of existential distress or at least acute ambivalence.

“To lose the plot: if someone loses the plot they become confused and do not know what they should do.“
– Collins Dictionary

Adrift without a story map, people feel lost and discombobulated and may decide it is safer to do nothing than to move forwards. This is the resistance leaders often encounter when they propose a new strategy. The best way to prevent this is to provide people with a good story to replace the one they are losing. But what makes a good story?

Thinkers from Aristotle to the American mythologist Joseph Campbell have observed a universal pattern underlying enduring stories. This pattern is the source code of story – story DNA – and it mirrors the journey we go on when we try to change something in our lives.

At the start of a good story, life throws down a gauntlet challenging the hero to embark on an adventure. Cautious of change (as we all tend to be), the hero balks at first but then commits to the journey enduring many trials before finally emerging transformed and with a treasure or insight that will benefit the wider community. This pattern can be seen in stories from The Odyssey to Jaws.

Nobody is really sure why good stories involve people on change journeys but it may be because change is an important part of our survival as a species. For better or worse, we are built for restless questing and stories help us do it. They explore the conflict between our need for change and our fear of change helping us set sail. They have been called flight simulators for life because they enable us to visualise and prepare for change in a safe virtual setting.

Effective leaders therefore say in one form or another: “We are headed to a new destination. It won’t be easy – we’ll have to weather storms and slay dragons – but the prize will be worth the quest and we will be transformed by the journey.”

Leading change without a story is like leading an expedition without a map: your team will feel lost, fearful and mutinous. Lead with a story so people don’t lose the plot.

“A ship in harbour is safe but that is not what ships are built for.“
– John Shedd