Interview with Paul Smith: On leading through stories

PaulSmith600x600Vera: There is a lot on leadership out there and you focus on an interesting angle that of “story’’. What does it mean to lead with a story?

Paul: It means leading people by telling stories instead of just bossing them around. Instead of simply telling someone in your organization what to do, you share a story that helps them decide — on their own — to do whatever it is you wanted them to do. The story helps them find an insight or wisdom or motivation on their own, which is much more effective and welcome, and in the long-term a more sustainable method of leading.  A big problem is that people just don’t have enough good stories in their repertoire to pull the right one out when the moment calls for it. That’s one of the reasons I wrote Lead with a Story. In addition to teaching you how to craft leadership stories, it’s a collection of over 100 great stories from great CEOs, executives, and leaders from around the world.


Vera: What is the real strategic power/weight of storytelling and what are some of the challenges with making it gain traction with leaders who may tend to focus on hard tools such as strategy?

Paul: First of all, you would never choose to use storytelling instead of using strategy. Storytelling is not a replacement for strategy. But once you’ve decided what your business strategy is, storytelling is a great way to get everyone in your organization to understand that strategy, see themselves in it, and be motivated to deliver it.

Storytelling can however, reduce or eliminate 80-page PowerPoint decks, boring corporate memos, and mind-numbing speeches that will barely live long enough to make it to the trash can. Storytelling works so well because it speaks to the part of the brain where decisions are actually made. We think we humans make highly rational decisions. We don’t. Cognitive scientists tell us that most decisions are made in the subconscious, emotional, and sometimes irrational part of the brain. Facts and logic don’t talk to that part of the brain. Stories do.

A big barrier leaders face is not recognizing that storytelling is something they can learn. You can learn just like you’d learn any other professional skill you want to develop. Read a book on storytelling, take a class, or hire a coach, and then practice.


Vera: It’s easy to see how storytelling can be great for crafting and communicating a corporate vision. How does it help build commitment/enhance culture?

Paul: The best way to answer that question would be with an example. Here’s an example of a story that’s used to build commitment:

And here’s one from Walmart that could be used to help all their employees understand 5 important parts of the culture the founder, Sam Walton, wanted to instill in every employee.


Vera: What are the typical entry points for business story telling for leaders and what’s the role of employees in ensuring it has tangible benefits?

Paul: The easiest stories for anyone to tell are true stories about things that happened to them personally. Those will come across as the most genuine and authentic stories. They’re also the easiest to remember, since they actually happened to you. Those will be the best place to start as a storyteller. Then you can move on to telling stories about things that happened to other people and eventually to fictional tales.

As for the employees on the receiving end of these stories, the main thing they have to do is keep an open mind and just listen — provide fertile ground for the stories to do their work. Then they should be willing to pass along the ones they were most inspired by to other people. But you won’t have to instruct anyone to do either of these things. That’s just the way human beings behave with stories, which is one of the reasons storytelling is such a powerful tool.


Vera: If a leader came to you wanting to learn how to ‘’lead with a story’’ and how to measure its impact what would your advice be?

Paul: My advice would be to first learn how to do it. Read a book on the topic or take a class. Take learning storytelling as seriously as you’d take learning any other skill helpful for your job like finance or marketing or management.

As for measuring the results, that depends on why you’re telling stories and who you’re telling them to. If you’re telling stories to prospective customers to get them to buy your product, then you should see results in higher sales. If you’re telling them to employees to get them to be more collaborative and more innovative, then you should see it in better working relationships and increased creativity.

But most immediately you’ll see it in the faces and voices of the people you’re telling stories to. They’ll have a smile and a knowing look in their eyes as they finally understand what you’re memos have been ineffective at explaining. They’ll thank you for communicating with them in a more human fashion.


Vera: Looking more broadly at leadership, what would you say are the make or break qualities/competencies for success as a leader today?

Paul: To be a great storyteller, of course.  Specifically, the kind of leader who tells stories of their own worst failures and mistakes so that his or her direct reports can avoid those missteps without having to make them themselves.


Vera: One of your specialisms is character development. What is your approach to this in your work with leaders and what difference is that making?

Paul: The character development work I do is primarily for parents to use in raising their children. (Although it can certainly work with grownups as well.) The entire purpose of my second book, Parenting with a Story, was to create a collection of 101 short stories parents could tell their kids to teach some of the most important life lessons everyone needs to learn. It’s based on my interviews with people from all walks of life and 20+ countries around the world as I had them reflect on their most life-changing moments of clarity. It has chapters on character traits like: ambition, open-mindedness, creativity, curiosity, courage, integrity, hard work, kindness, patience, humility, fairness, forgiveness, gratitude and several others.


Vera: What are some of the most useful leadership lessons you’ve learnt from the many leaders you’ve worked with?

Paul: The wisdom I’ve gained from listening to leaders tell their stories is not the kind of thing that can be usefully summarized in a list or sound bites. Stories put critical but unoriginal advice into an original setting and deliver it to you in a way that you’ll remember it forever, be more likely to recall it at the precise moment you need it, and give you a practical way to see how that wisdom might be leveraged in the life of someone like you. For example, from the West Point story above ( I learned to take responsibility for myself.


I’ve learned hundreds of other lessons about leading change, collaboration, innovation, leveraging diversity, building courage, delegation, vision setting, culture, values, etc., all of which would sound equally unimpressive if reduced to a sound bite. But all of which are equally life changing when delivered via the stories they came to me with.


Vera: What’s your story you’re leading with?

Paul: I have hundreds of stories I use as part of my leadership, as should any good leader. To “lead with a story” doesn’t mean to use a story to kick off a speech or presentation, like a comedian or motivational speaker that has a ‘go to’ story or joke they use every time they open up a talk. It means to conduct your leadership by telling stories as opposed to bossing people around.


 Paul’s profile

Paul Smith is Author of the best-selling book Lead with a Story: A Guide to Crafting Business Narratives That Captivate, Convince, and Inspire published in 6 languages around the world. Paul is also a popular keynote speaker and trainer in leadership and communication. His work has been featured in The Wall Street Journal, Inc. Magazine, Time, Forbes, and Success Magazine, among others. Previously he worked as a consultant at Accenture and at Procter & Gamble, as Director of consumer and communications research. More about Paul’s work from