3 Stories Leaders Need to Tell


“A storyteller makes up things to help other people; a liar makes up things to help himself.” — Daniel Wallace

As a leader, you need to tell 3 stories:

  1. your personal story,
  2. a group story, and
  3. the dream story. 

Your personal story communicates your beliefs and values

The group story helps create a shared sense of destiny. 

The dream story inspires people to a better future. 

Use Stories to Inspire Yourself and Others

Whether you’re a leader of a small team or large group, have these stories under your belt.  If you lead a family, you can use the 3 stories too. 

If you just need to lead yourself, then have a personal story and dream story to remind yourself who you are and to inspire yourself to where you want to be.

In Emotional Capitalists: The Ultimate Guide to Developing Emotional Intelligence for Leaders, Martyn Newman writes about the 3 stories leaders need to tell.

Story #1 – Your Personal Story

The first story you need to tell is your personal story.

Via Emotional Capitalists: The Ultimate Guide to Developing Emotional Intelligence for Leaders:

“As a leader there are three types of stories that you have to tell.  The first is your personal story.  To be credible, you have to express yourself genuinely and communicate your beliefs and values in ways that distinctly represent who you are.  This is not about wearing your heart on your sleeve, but about describing what makes you tick and what values drive you as a person.  For example, if you value diversity and innovation, then ensure you create an environment where people’s views are respected and taken seriously and where mistakes can be made without retribution.  Likewise, if you value collaboration and teamwork, then ensure you’re a team player by consulting widely among your people.”

Story #2 – The Group Story

The second story you need to tell is about the identity for your group.

Via Emotional Capitalists: The Ultimate Guide to Developing Emotional Intelligence for Leaders:

“The second story you have to tell is the group or collective story.  This provides some sense of collective identity with which the group can identify.  Leadership is not about imposing your individual dream, it’s about developing a shared sense of destiny.  It’s about enabling each person to develop a sense of belonging to the group.  You do this by helping each individual to understand both his or her unique contribution and the distinctive contribution of others.  In other words, adopt a ‘you need me and I need you’ approach.”

Story #3 – The Dream Story

The third story you need to tell is about your dream.

Via Emotional Capitalists: The Ultimate Guide to Developing Emotional Intelligence for Leaders:

“Once the first two stories are communicated clearly, the real power of your leadership will exist – as it always has – in telling the third story: the destiny or dream story.  In this story you provide a description of why the group must change, where it is going and how it will get there.  The destiny or dream story provides people with dreams that touch, excite and arouse them — something that ultimately gives them a chance to live out part of their hopes and aspirations.”

Key Take Aways

Here are my key take aways:

  • Use stories to help people think, feel and act.   Stories help to share the emotions and context beyond dry facts.  People can connect with stories at a deeper level.  People can also tell and retell stories to spread the message in a simple and effective way.
  • Tell your personal story.   This is the story where you share what you care about and what makes you tick.
  • Tell the group story.  This is the story where you create an identify for the group.
  • Tell the dream story.  This is the story where you paint a picture of the future.

Stories are a great way to share and inspire. 

Everybody likes a good story.

The trick is to make the stories relevant and connect at the values, hopes, and dreams.

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Photo by Felipe Morin.

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18 Comments on "3 Stories Leaders Need to Tell"

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  1. I love the idea of these three stories. They are all so important in their own ways. Thanks for posting this! It’s great advice.

  2. Either I wasn’t paying close enough attention before, or it seems like lately, stories have become a big focal point in media and marketing. Telling a story is probably the best way to create a connection with any audience.

  3. Ian | Quantum Learning says:

    I think human beings are great story tellers. It was the main way to pass wisdom between peoples and generations. Poems, songs, fables, myths etc.. Even with the advent of writing and, lately, mass media the story has a powerful hold on us. So I guess it’s a very natural way for leaders (or anyone for that matter) to communicate their vision, their wisdom. And I think these three types of story are a very helpful way to look at them.

    Thanks for the article!

  4. Evita says:

    I love this!!! This is perhaps why I love to read and listen to teachers like Wayne Dyer, he always has such great stories, and from all the categories that you mention.

    It is in fact an inspiration in my eyes and something that I hope to also be able to be full of one day, beautiful stories that connect people and evoke positive emotions!

    Thanks this was such an enjoyable read :)

  5. Hi,
    I like your “key take aways”, that is good advices to follow. I really enjoy reading your posts, especially this one.
    I enjoy your work, keep spreading your message.
    Giovanna Garcia
    Imperfect Action is better than no Action

  6. Patricia says:

    This format is similar to how I was taught to write a sermon, the only problem is that the 1st story can not be personal every week or even a few times a year…
    The last story can scare people in the pew, inspire a few or make them feel safe that they do not need to change or do anything differently – including self examination…

    Tricky business…but great format…Thank you

  7. Alik Levin | PracticeThis.com says:

    Good one!
    Stories is what worked for me very well so far.
    I was using kind of the dream story to keep project on track. Many call it vision, but the association with “vision” is that it suits CIO’s room and not the developers cubicles. So instead of calling it vision I called it “theme” (adopted it form the book – The Hollywood’s Secrets Of Project Management). The result was “astonishing” – any time we had debates we were recalling the theme as a guiding light and the decisions where made right away.
    Does it count for a dream story [although I am not a leader :) ]?

  8. Louisa says:

    It’s a really good way to look at it JD, when you lead a group I suppose you have to make them give a damn about the group, and they have to feel part of the group or they’ll just be a bunch of loose strangers.

  9. Daphne says:

    JD, I’ve known the importance of stories, yet never thought about the three different types of stories. Very useful post!

  10. Stories are great emotional connectors. I haven’t thought about there being three different kinds…looks like I’ll have to read the book. Thanks for introducing it to me.

  11. Thanks J.D. this is interesting because if we aren’t conscious of the stories we are telling a story still gets communicated and it may b not be one we want to have spread. As a self-employed business owner the story I tell myself is indeed important.

  12. JD says:

    @ Positively Present

    Thank you. I think Martyn’s done a great job outlining real keys to leadership in his book.

    @ Melissa

    I think “storytelling” drifts in and out of the spot light, but it will always be in vogue. Some things are just timeless.

    @ Ian

    I like your point on handing wisdom down through the ages. I agree. Stories, as well as quotes and sayings, have been powerful tools for sticky messages.

    @ Evita

    I think you’re on track already and that right there is a beautiful story.

    @ Giovanna

    Thank you. I think key take aways help turn insight into action.

  13. JD says:

    @ Patricia

    It sounds like effective sermons are great to model from.

    @ Alik

    Theme sounds like a great technique. In fact, it’s part of how we do our software projects in patterns & practices … we group our stories into themes.

    @ Louisa

    Everybody wants to feel special, and belonging to a special group is one way. Rather than a Sneeches with Stars or Sneeches withouth, it’s more of a “join me on an epic adventure” sort of a play. It’s the values or common goal that brings people together. In fact, one way to bring a divided group together is to share a common enemy.

    @ Daphne

    I’m a growing fan of storytelling. It’s forcing me to flip through my life and find the stories that matter.

    @ Laurie

    You hit the key … stories are emotional connectors.

    @ Tom

    True dat. You might not like the stories people make up. In the absence of information, people make stuff up to fill in the blanks. This is true of metaphors, too. If you don’t have a label for yourself or have a metaphor, folks will make one up. It’s the natural process of people making sense of their world.

  14. Jannie Funster says:

    Wow, that sounds really motivational. I guess it is the human element, sharing our frailties and desires that really connects us on a deep level, as we are all so alike. And who doesn’t like someone to read them a picture book with a great story?

  15. J.D. Meier says:

    @ Jannie

    I’m always ready for story time!