The ancient storytelling secret that every leader needs to know

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Written by

Patti Sanchez

When Ray Anderson, former CEO of the carpet company Interface, realized that his company needed to lead the charge on sustainability, he didn’t just plan an initiative and put it into action. He told a story.

Anderson explained to employees that they’d need to climb a mountain “taller than Everest.” That may sound dramatic or even trite, but it tapped into something that’s been with humans before we invented written language: our passion for hearing stories about heroic quests.

You may have zoned out through most of Beowulf in high school, but the fact is that the heroic quest is one of the most dramatic and powerful forms a story can take. Leaders who understand its basic structure can use it to show–not just tell–their teams exactly where they’re heading and how to get there together.

Stories for the Road Ahead

We already know how crucial storytelling is in business, especially for branding, PR, and marketing. Stories can improve understanding, make ideas more accessible, and make us feel emotions that compel us to action. But storytelling can also help us conceptualize the future. In leaders’ hands, great stories can help guide teams through long-term changes.

The heroic quest is one of the most dramatic and powerful forms a story can take.

Often people use stories to make sense of things after they’ve happened–like that time your team pulled together in record time–in order to boost morale when faced with similar challenges. But great leaders also use stories to give shape to things without any precedent and explain how to achieve them.

They see their companies’ journeys as grand stories, with their teams playing an active role in the narrative. Just as a narrator guides readers through a novel, offering enough information to understand what’s happening and stay interested, a good leader serves as a torchbearer, lighting the way for a group of people and keeping them moving toward a common goal.

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This isn’t a new concept. Some 60 years ago, sociologist Erving Goffman asserted that humans are wired to act out stories in our daily lives. Through a phenomenon he called “impression management,” we often assume the role of actors who engage in “performances” for particular “audiences” in order to shape others’ perceptions of a situation and of ourselves.

In those instances, we’re basically narrating a story as we’d like others to see it. But that story may be more than just a theoretical construct in our own minds; it may in fact be unfolding right in front of us. And the heroic quest provides an ideal template: In it, a likeable hero answers the call to adventure, overcomes obstacles that test his resolve, and finally gains the object of his desire in triumph (or falls short in tragedy).

Anatomy of a Venture Scape Copyright

Anatomy of a Venture Scape

A business’s journey toward a goal isn’t all that different. There’s a beginning, when an idea is formed and gains support; a middle, when a team must fight and slog through hard work to make the vision come alive; and an end, when the venture either fails or succeeds. That narrative arc looks a little like an S-curve, carving the story up into the classic three acts.

Real-World Quests

But while most of us can recognize that story structure in literature, movies, and other fictional accounts, it takes a great storyteller to present the messier events of real life that way. That’s why the most successful business leaders are often great storytellers, too: They don’t just see a new business strategy, organizational change, or product launch as an initiative to be executed. They see it as an equally epic journey, marked by moments of triumph as well as moments of defeat.

But a truly great leader doesn’t just tell their company’s story to their team the way they themselves see it. They also go searching for others’ points of view. By listening empathetically, leaders can not only gauge where they are in the narrative they envision, but assess what other people need to hear in order to keep everyone moving toward the object of their shared quest together.

A good leader serves as a torchbearer, lighting the way for a group of people and keeping them moving.

Six years after founding the nonprofit Charity: Water, CEO Scott Harrison wanted to find a story to reinspire his organization. Charity: Water aims to bring clean, safe drinking water to everyone in the world. And even though the organization (which has worked with us here at Duarte, Inc.) had already served millions of people, there were still hundreds of millions left to help.

So to reconnect people to that mission, Harrison went in search of a story about the impact Charity: Water was making. In Ethiopia, he heard the story of a woman, Letikiros, who had traveled eight hours a day carrying a heavy pot of fresh water to her family. One day after returning from the trip, she slipped, fell, and spilled the water. She was so distraught and ashamed that she hanged herself from a tree.

The story reminded Harrison of the urgent human significance of what Charity: Water was meant to do. By telling Letikiros’s story, he aimed to show his team that their quest as an organization was indeed a heroic one–and it wasn’t finished yet. Indeed, the advantage to this type of storytelling is twofold: It maps out where you are in your own business’s journey while explaining why it’s so essential to continue on that path.

So take a step back and assess where you are in your own great story. Listen to your fellow travelers to understand how they’re experiencing the journey, and gather stories that are meaningful to them. Then, use that information to say what people need to hear so they’ll feel as motivated as you are to press onward.

That way, it will be their story, too–but right now, as a leader, it’s your responsibility to tell it.

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Illustrated by Alexis Macias

A version of this article originally appeared in Fast Company.