The 5 Stories All Leaders Need

By: Margo Gouley

We all love a great story. Stories move us. They make us think, they make us feel, and they connect us to the people around us like no other form of communication can. Humans have used stories to communicate since the beginning of recorded human history, and our brains are wired to pay attention to them and retain them. They are foundational to so much of what we call culture: our histories, art, languages, and social structures are all communicated and shaped by the stories we tell. We use them to teach children and to connect with our friends. There is truly no form of communication more HUMAN than a story. 

And yet, leaders are chronically guilty of assuming that in the workplace, facts alone are what move people to act. We share endless data. We make arguments. We wordsmith messages into meaningless strings of jargon. And then we wonder why we have failed to influence and inspire people with our communication. Often, what we’ve overlooked in these moments is the role of emotion in great leadership communication. If we are only communicating in the form of arguments, constantly proving our point rather than aiming to connect with and move people, we will certainly miss out on the opportunity to inspire them. 

Even if we realize the ability of stories to engage hearts as well as minds, we are often hesitant to use them at precisely the moments we need them most. We worry about our ability to tell stories, about not being a “natural” storyteller, about whether people will want to listen. The good news is that if you are human, you are already a storyteller.

The key to using stories as a leadership communication tool is to know your audience and choose your moments well. There are a few types of stories that all leaders will find useful at some point. And you can absolutely prepare your version of these in advance so that they're ready to pull out when the moment is right. At The Humphrey Group, we call these the 5 Stories All Leaders Need. 

  1. The "how we got here" story. This is a story that takes your audience on a journey through the past, up to the present moment. It's a great choice for when you're communicating a process, when you want to show people how far they've come, or when they need to understand the context of an issue. If you’re responsible for managing change, getting buy-in for new ways of working, or aligning people on a strategy, this type of story is critical. You may need different versions for different audiences, but they should all support one another.

  2. The "where we're going" story. This type of story paints a picture of the future. That future can be real or imagined. Use this type of story when you want to share your vision, when you're trying to motivate people through a tough part of a transformation or a particularly long journey, or when your audience needs to be reminded of the big picture.

  3. The "signature analogy" story. Are you a baseball fan? Love to cook? Can't get enough of detective novels? You can craft stories that are analogies for the issues your business is facing by drawing upon your genuine interests and hobbies. Use this type of story when you need to show vulnerability or create a personal connection. A well-crafted story told authentically can do more for your brand than any formal presentation will ever do!

  4. The "what success can look like" story. This is a story that motivates your audience with an example of what they have achieved in the past or what others in a similar situation have been able to achieve. Use this type of story to provide an example that will bring an idea to life for your audience. We all love to hear how others with challenges similar to ours have been able to problem-solve or find creative solutions. The same logic can apply to our own internal teams when we need to help them believe their goals are achievable, or when we need to motivate them through a tough spot.

  5. The "worst case scenario" story. Sometimes the most impactful stories are stories of failure. It's OK to share a story that has a disappointing ending. Not all inspiring stories have happy endings. The important thing is that your message is positive (even if the resolution of the story isn't). For example, a story that ends with losing a client can still have an inspiring message: “You can see why I believe so strongly in prioritizing the client relationship above all else.” Don’t think of a positive message as a way to sugarcoat a failure or spin it into a success. Instead, think of the message as the moral of the story. What do you want people to learn or do differently next time? 

Sharing personal stories is vulnerable. It can feel like a risk. But it's a risk worth taking. When we make ourselves vulnerable to our audience, we open up a pathway for connection. Which type of story will help you connect with the people you need to inspire? To learn more about how we help leaders build their storytelling skills, check out our learning experiences at