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Stories and metaphor

Getting people to listen to you is tough enough, but getting them to sit up and take notice, and then remember what you have to say, is a supreme challenge. Every leader uses stories, knowing that we are wired to listen, imaginatively, when we are told stories. Good stories get under the cynical radar and touch hearts. Backed up by facts to cover off the mind, stories have the power to move people.

The best stories tell us about customer experiences, good and bad, or make heroes out of employees delivering the values of the organization, or show up the frustrations of workers unable to do their best because of the system, or vividly portray the future, or reveal aspects of the leader to the audience. They deliberately avoid the tyranny of PowerPoint, and are the more memorable because of it. Some leaders I spoke with were uncomfortable with the word stories and preferred the word anecdotes, saying this was factual rather than fictional as some stories can be. But they all used them, loved hearing them and re-telling them, over and over.


Actions speak louder than words. A cliché, you might say, but nevertheless one of the hardest truths for a leader to grasp. Being a leader means looking, acting, walking and talking like a leader. Countless times, leaders forget that they are in a fishbowl and are being watched all the time. A look of frustration here, a preoccupied walk through an office without speaking to anyone, a frown of frustration when someone is talking – all of these send powerful signals that staff take away and dissect for meaning.

Great leaders communicate positivity and optimism, and they often do it through a smile, or by walking with energy, or by standing straight and tall. Equally, there is nothing more corrosive than the conflict between saying one thing and doing another: for example, saying that bullying is offensive, but then doing nothing about a high-earning bullying manager. That says one thing, and one thing only: money matters more than staff welfare. Leaders who clearly love what they are doing, who show it in everything they do, in every expression, are hugely infectious.

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