The power of stories

Human Resources


In turbulent times we need leaders who can connect people. How do you do that? Great leaders are good storytellers per definition, but what makes them important? They have followers to whom the story means something. A good story will last longer than dominant technology, says Gianpiero Petriglieri.

By Management Team.

Gianpiero Petriglieri

Gianpiero Petriglieri is an associate professor at Insead, where he is responsible for the Management Acceleration Program. He also teaches guest lectures at Harvard and Copenhagen Business School. As a vice-chairman of the World Economic Forum he looked at new leadership models and in 2015 he was on the shortlist for a Thinkers50-award. He is a trained psychiatrist.

From king Salomon, to Red Riding Hood, to ballerina’s. Everyone that follows one of Insead professor Gianpiero Petrglieri’s master classes, will hear one story after the other. It’s the first time he’s taught one of these master classes at the Leader Gathering of Antwerp Management School.

Petriglieri2.jpgThe room is filled to the brim and the popular professor – ‘call me GP’ – immediately asks the group a question. ‘Who’s a teacher?’ No-one raises their hand. ‘Who’s a leader?’ Everyone raises their hand. ‘Why don’t you raise your hand when I ask you who teaches? Every day you teach leadership. The question is: what do people learn from you?’

He adds that 150 billion dollars are invested every year in leadership development. The majority of these programs, 80 percent, happen through companies. ‘Why are we so discontent with our leaders?’ He doesn’t have to provide an answer, because everyone immediately thinks: a series of corporate scandals, greedy bankers, failing politics, too many leaders who serve themselves openly and without embarrassment.

They all turn out to be consequences of the same unintentional evolution, GP says. ‘We have limited our definition of leadership. We’ve spent most of lives in a homogeneous culture. We’ve never had to discuss anything, because everyone immediately understood what needed to be done, what was good and bad. If you were a leader long enough, any opposition would disappear eventually. As long as the results were delivered, a leader was good enough.’ Leadership development has unconsciously been putting an emphasis on skills and self-knowledge. 


‘We need to return to a broader sense of leadership. Leaders need to connect people. That’s what stories do.’

In practice: What do you have to do to be successful? Personally: Who are you and how do you stick to your authentic self? That is the best protection from other people’s emotions and social pressure. Leadership is being dehumanized. The connections with identity, context and unity are being broken. Which people feel good in this situation? Narcissists and psychopaths. ‘We need to return to a broader sense of leadership. Leaders need to connect people. That’s what stories do.’


What does King Salomon teach us?

‘That wisdom cannot be explained through economical transaction. Wisdom manifests itself. Like two mothers who fight for one baby, the proposal to cut the baby in two, does not rise from experience. Wisdom is the use of fundamental knowledge about people, at the moment when it’s most important. And yes, it can also be called common sense. Leaders pass on wisdom by telling people stories. Classic stories survive in society longer than dominant technologies. The problem is that it is difficult to stay connected to this fundamental knowledge when you’re in power. Power makes impersonal, power makes inhuman. That is why most of us, which is why I use the example of king Salomon, think that a wise leader is someone who has stayed human and decent in a position of power.’


‘If you’re not a decisive person, it is hard to succeed as a leader. If you never doubt yourself, it is just as hard to stay successful.’


What does Red Riding Hood teach us?

‘Red Riding Hood is a universal story that always returns: the innocent girl, the wolf and the hunter. Hollywood keeps re-using it and still we cannot get enough of it. Stories are the primary societal technology that we’ve developed to make our brains understand how the world works and to teach our brains to correctly regulate emotions. That is why classic stories are so powerful. They help us survive to exceed ourselves, so we can contribute to society and can create something to leave behind.’


Is telling good stories wise leadership?

‘Great leaders are good storytellers per definition, but what makes them important? They have followers to whom the story means something. These leaders tell a story, they are the story, they embody the story. If you look at people who you see as leaders in your life, they usually are the people who are involved in a story that’s important to you. You have your personal interests, but you also want to exceed them. People who make us feel like those two interests are not conflicting, we see as leaders.

That is rare, because it usually doesn’t work like that in life. Often you have to do something for someone else and that’s not good for you. Therefore, it is really satisfying when you meet someone who makes you feel that serving others also fulfills your personal interests. Important leaders make you feel like it is good for you and good for us, but maybe not always good enough for others. Some people see a leader as a visionary or a saint, but others see the same leader as a dangerous character who has to be put down for the sake of our planet.’


Are leaders who embody a story also wise?

‘If you stick to your story as a leader, that does not make you wise. Wisdom a kind of doubt. The people around you want you to show confidence, that you’re sure, that you stick with your story. The person and the professional have to be a perfect match with the norms and the surroundings of the group. If you’re in the story, then your norms are always good, that is the truth for the followers. But these leaders can do stupid things. Donald Trump is a leader for a certain group of people to whom his story is important. If you’re outside of his story, you think he’s a clown. We’ve seen this kind of leaders in history and we’ll see more.’

Companies mostly invest in transferring knowledge and developing skills. Is that wrong?

‘No, but they have to ask themselves if the people they’re training are capable of embodying a valuable story. Leaders represent a group of people. Do they have the same values and interests as their followers? Can they win the approval and trust of their people? Do they want to help others to realize share ambitions? If the needs and aspirations of the group are known, which skills do you need to redeem them? Companies still use two traditional ways of learning. One is to learn how to set yourself apart from the rest. You go against the collective, you become an entrepreneur and you want to change the organization. Two is learning how to connect to the community. You become one of us, you are socialized. That is not that hard.

What is hard, is to let people do both. Think of a ballerina. She balances between having to be different and presenting in a predictable way. As a leader you’re always on that line. You have to set yourself apart and at the same time be conscious of several limits. As a leader you want to embody the story, but you don’t want to be the story. Organizations try too hard to get people to join the story, or to stay out of it too much. If you only follow and do what others expect, you’re not a leader. Many companies look for good followers and call it leadership to make you feel better about it. They teach you the tools and skill to do the things they want. Doing your thing and making others obey is no leadership either.’


Practically, how do you handle this as a leader?

‘You shouldn’t be asking the classic questions, like am I a leader? How can I get done what I want? More important is, to whom can I be a leader? Why do people trust me? Who profits and who pays? Those are more fruitful questions if you’re trying to be a leader not just Petriglieri3.jpgeffectively, but in a human way as well. If you are the story of the company, what do people learn from you? How much of it is obedience and how much is learning to deviate? Have you put your vision in the right context? Are you clear in how you’re helping people achieve their goals? Do you teach people what it means to be a part of a group? What do you do to maintain a lively culture? Talented people today have the opportunity to go to diverse companies. Research shows that those people don’t choose companies, because they get the best deal for themselves or because they can fully give themselves to a higher goal. They stay where they get the opportunity to do something to achieve their personal goals and for the bigger collective.’


How do you prevent yourself from ending up in the wrong part of the story?

‘You’re being pulled down at the moment that knowledge becomes a faith. That often happens unconsciously: you know something, it works, other support you, believe you, you’re being pulled in and before you know it’s a fundamental belief. You’re not a leader anymore, you’re a fundamentalist. You no longer manage the story, the story manages you. The best way to make sure you position yourself right as a leader is surrounding yourself in the right way, before you become a leader. Leaders often say it’s lonely at the top, but it doesn’t have to be. It’s lonely when you grow lonely on your way there. If you don’t take any people with you. It’s about people who support you in your development, who support you in your capacity to contextualize your vision.'


Wisdom is a form of doubt, you say. Can you publicly doubt as a leader?

‘If you’re not a decisive person, it’s hard to be successful as a leader. If you never doubt yourself, it’s just as hard to stay successful. The core of leadership is courage. Courage to act when the circumstances say it’s safer not to. But also the courage to stand still when others expect you to act and wondering why you do something what the meaning of it is. It’s never safe to doubt what others see as obvious.

That’s why it’s important to know which people to surround yourself with. You need to feel like these people care about you enough. They can challenge you with their questions, they can argue with you, but they want to keep you in your position. They help you doubt yourself, but they won’t lose trust in you. The question of how much space you give yourself is also important. What are the places where you can be alone with your thoughts and where you can doubt your story? That’s why many leaders meditate or run, that’s how they give themselves space.’


'There is no such thing as a happy leader. A relaxed leader does not exist. A leader pushes others to move towards a goal, towards change, that naturally means a sense that it’s not moving as quickly or far as they’d like.'

What can you do when you’re struggling as a leader?

‘A lot of leaders have problems because things aren’t moving as quickly as they’d like. To me that’s not a struggle, that’s being a leader. If you don’t have that feeling, then you’re not pushing yourself and others hard enough. Leaders have to lead and not simply work with a leader’s title. There is no such thing as a happy leader. A relaxed leader does not exist. A leader pushes others to move towards a goal, towards change, that naturally means a sense that it’s not moving as quickly or far as they’d like. Maybe you should accept that that’s a part of leadership. If more is happening, you should start looking around.

Ask yourself three questions. One: Are you connected to yourself enough in what you do? Why have you lost yourself? Two: Do you have enough people around you that you can re-load with, that you can share with? If not, who? Why are you carrying the burden on your own? Is it plight, a sense of distrust, of the impossibility to delegate? Three: Do I have a sense of connection with the other people within the company? Are we working together? Do we make each other’s live easier? If not, where did you lose them and what needs to happen to connect again? Even with these three connections – yourself, your circle and the collective – it’s still a battle, but it feels useful. If you work long hours, that’s not how it feels. If you feel overworked, than it’s because your work doesn’t have any meaning, any goal. It doesn’t give you energy and doesn’t energize others. Then you need to take action. For all the rest: this is a natural struggle that leaders have to make the world a better place.'

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