Stories and Leadership

innovation leadership Sep 01, 2021

“Change your thoughts and you change your world.” - Norman Vincent Peale

What stories go through your head as you walk around your office? As you meet with individuals on your team? Stories impact leadership, innovation, productivity, and organizational growth. How can stories be positive and reinforce accountability?

One of the prominent themes at Workhuman Live 2019 was that a great leader is one who asks questions and enables others to realize their dreams.

Most managers who have attended leadership development training programs are given a toolkit and set of processes. Yet many of these programs do not take into account the mindset needed to be an effective leader. The critical work needed to become an inspired leader is to focus on rewriting and unraveling negative stories.

Let’s walk through some of the critical skills needed to reframe these negative stories, based on research by Brené Brown and Cy Wakeman.

Rumbling with stories around vulnerability. Brené Brown’s research makes it clear that vulnerability and courage work together. You cannot have one without the other. The challenge is your mind tends to tell you stories about being weak and ashamed when you’re vulnerable. But according to Brené, it is only when you reach into your vulnerability that you will inspire your team. Vulnerability creates trust and permission to experiment, learn, and make mistakes. As Brené eloquently stated at Workhuman Live 2019, “Without leadership that accepts and exposes vulnerability, innovation will not happen. Do not expect individuals to come up with creative ideas if there are negative repercussions for failure.”

Vulnerability creates trust and permission to experiment, learn, and make mistakes.

Rise above the story. Our brains are wired for stories. For example, if someone ignores you at a meeting, your mind may tell you that you are about to receive some bad news, your career is ending, or you will never get the promotion you deserve. In the absence of data, the mind makes up stories, many of them negative. These stories inflate fears, create shame, and embolden insecurities. Leaders who believe these stories start to micromanage, holding onto control, and potentially bully their teams.

In the absence of data, the mind makes up stories, many of them negative.

The most resilient leaders change the story. They recognize that the story is made-up and tell themselves facts around a positive story. Ask yourself, “What do I know? What is the story I am telling myself?” Brené uses the mantra, “This is just my shitty first draft,” to quiet the negative stories and turn them into positive ones.

Accountability changes the storyCy Wakeman’s philosophy is that leaders must hold each person accountable. She explains that individuals and leaders often end up in the negative rut of stories where they are bitching, moaning, and whining (BMW for short). These negative stories create a victim mentality where employees believe they cannot change anything. The result is declined productivity and innovation.

Venting is the story you tell yourself to keep the negative story alive. It feeds the ego and protects you from the realities of your circumstances. The most effective way to change the story is to move into self-reflection, the ultimate drama killer. Some questions that turn negative stories into positive stories with accountability include:

  • What can I do to help? This moves you from a state of judging to a state of helping.
  • What do I know for sure? This helps loosen the grip of the negative story. It moves from negativity into accountability.
  • What can I do to add value? This helps the brain figure out how to make things work instead focusing on negativity.
  • What would great look like? This is the ultimate positive accountability question.

Edit the stories. Cy firmly believes that suffering is optional. Individuals can control their suffering by changing their stories. Leaders need to help their teams change the stories to create accountability. For example, when an employee starts venting, ask them to edit their story. Writing things down can help individuals tune into their thoughts and turn negative stories into positive ones. Two great questions to think through include:

  • What would be most helpful in this situation? 
  • Would you rather be right or happy? 

Stories impact leadership, innovation, productivity, and organizational growth. The critical factor to drive leadership is to do what it takes to move people from negativity to positivity and become accountable.


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Michelle Obama Builds on Storytelling Theme at Grammys

The Power of Storytelling: Q&A with Professor Julia Lee

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