What storytellers can teach open leaders

Learning from great storytellers makes us better open leaders—as long as we understand what these roles have in common.
262 readers like this
262 readers like this
A sprout in a forest


People are natural storytellers. From the moment we learn to speak, we use stories to communicate and to express our needs and desires. Great storytelling happens when the person telling the story is emotionally involved in the story itself—passionate about the narrative and interested in listeners' responses.

Great leaders mirror those dispositions. They are passionate, and they care about the response of people they are leading.

Here are three more similarities between great storytelling and great leadership.

Understanding your audience

An author must understand her audience's motivations and values. This is important to constructing a narrative that resonates with them. The same is true of leadership. This is how leaders build and sell a strategy their staff can get behind.

Learning to understand an audience is about understanding the social context in which the audience is sitting. We are influenced by our surroundings, our friends, our education, our political involvements. These understandings (or social and cultural norms) make up an audience's "master narrative." A master narrative is simply a meta story that connects many other stories together. An example might be "the American Dream."

Suppose we understand our audiences only to realize later that we've made a mistake. Audiences will remember a story, and leaders will gain traction for a vision, only if the audience is truly understood.

Paint a clear picture for a better world

Those who understand the social and cultural norms that drive their audiences will be more innovative. They will develop stories and strategies that either reinforce or propose an alternative to predominant master narratives. For example, actively advocating for diversity and inclusion reinforces our community's master narrative that anyone can contribute to creating a more open world. We can also reinforce this narrative through postings that request the time and skills of editors, designers, writers, marketers and other non-developer jobs in open source projects. This is a counter narrative to an unfortunate master narrative that contends "only developers are involved in open source."

Beyond reinforcing the master narratives of their audiences, both storytellers and leaders need to use inclusive and descriptive language. Simplifying and describing a vision and telling a sitting-on-the-edge-of-your-seat story are identical in that they should evoke a desire to find out what happens next. What's a vision if no one is interested in implementing it? And what’s a story that no one is interested in finishing?

Exhibit courage and confidence

A great story is one that stays in our hearts and minds forever. It is one people retell over and over again, one that spreads a feeling of interconnectedness. Having that kind of emotional attachment to a story means a storyteller was able to describe something real. Something raw. He or she put forth both characters and conflict that connected with the audience in a visceral way.

Leaders are the same. They connect with people as human beings. They dare to put themselves on the line and take risks to connect with their audience, followers, or staff.

A great leader, like a great storyteller, has to be courageous, bold and confident.

Special thanks to Tsering Lama, who has taught me a bunch of stuff about storytelling.

Laura Hilliger is a writer, educator and technologist. She’s a multimedia designer and developer, a technical liaison, a project manager, an open web advocate who is happiest in collaborative environments. She’s a co-founder of We Are Open Co-op, an Ambassador for Opensource.com, is working to help open up Greenpeace, and a Mozilla alum. Find her on Twitter and Mastodon as @epilepticrabbit


I consider one of the highest compliments I ever received after giving a talk (I think it was a compliment) was that it was a TED Talk. My sense is that TED Talks, at least good ones, have a lot of the characteristics you mention.

I've never thought of story-telling and its connection to leadership. But, when I think of those people who have impacted me the most, it is those who have attracted me with their stories most of which have a personal connection. Establishing identification and empathy are great ways to connect to individual passions.

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