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How to Exercise Leadership Through Storytelling?

How to Exercise Leadership Through Storytelling?

Telling stories is a crucial leadership skill, and exceptional leaders are often adept at using stories to engage, educate, and inspire people. When leaders aim to mobilize their teams for change, the most important task is not to appeal to reason but to touch emotions. In today’s article, Mr. Liu Lan summarizes the two key elements for evoking emotions, helping you enhance your leadership abilities, build team trust, and inspire team members.

Today’s topic revolves around the two key elements of leadership stories. These two elements are highly significant, and if you grasp them, you’ve already mastered half of the art of exercising leadership through storytelling.

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01 – Why Leaders Should Tell Stories

Before I discuss what these two key elements are, let me first explain why it’s important to use storytelling to exercise leadership.

Think about it: leadership is about mobilizing people to solve problems. If not through storytelling, what else can you use? In real life, we often use another approach – reasoning. We believe that if we make people understand the logic, they will take action. In reality, merely understanding the logic often doesn’t lead to action.

Let me give you an example. How many people do you think actually exercise at least once a week? Do you do it consistently? I’ve conducted many informal surveys, and I’ve found that roughly one-third of people will raise their hands and claim they exercise at least once a week. Now, do you think the other two-thirds don’t understand the importance of exercise? They do, but they still don’t take action.

Why don’t they take action when they understand the importance? That’s because, to make people act, especially to make them take difficult steps to change, it’s more important to engage their emotions than their rational thinking.

So, why does appealing to emotions work better than appealing to reason? This reason is deeply rooted in our human nature.

We evolved from primates, and you know, primates lack rational thinking but have instincts and emotions. Primate actions are not guided by reason but by instincts and emotions. Humans are different from primates; we gained rational thinking, which is undoubtedly remarkable. However, when humans evolved from primates, it didn’t mean that rational thinking replaced emotions. Instead, emotions still exist in the brain’s emotional system, but a new rational thinking system was added on top of it. But often, this new rational system cannot defeat emotions.

Firstly, the emotional system is older, while the rational system is relatively new. When faced with a problem, the brain typically activates the emotional system first. Even if the brain sometimes engages the rational system, it’s less proficient because the rational system is a relatively recent addition.

Therefore, due to evolutionary reasons, even though rationality can make us act and change, emotions are more effective in making us act and change. If reason and emotions conflict, who do you think will win? Generally, it’s emotions.

Let me give you an example. There’s a psychologist named Jonathan Haidt who wrote a very good psychology book called “The Elephant and the Rider.” One of the book’s themes is the conflict between reason and emotions.

Haidt shares a personal story from his graduate school days. He read a book that argued that large-scale livestock farming is unethical. Haidt was completely convinced by the book’s rational arguments. He agreed that large-scale livestock farming was unethical. But he also noticed that despite his moral opposition, he didn’t change his behavior; he still enjoyed eating meat.

However, one day, he watched a video of animals being slaughtered in a slaughterhouse. Let me read you Haidt’s own words describing his feelings: “As I watched those cows move towards the bloodied conveyor belt, first stunned and then hooked by the leg, and then sliced up into one piece after another, my visceral fear turned to horror.” After seeing the video, he became a vegetarian.

You see, even though Haidt’s rational mind was convinced, it didn’t change his actions. Only when his emotions were stirred did he change his behavior.

02 – The Two Key Elements of Engaging Emotions

So, to mobilize people for change, the most crucial task for leaders is not to engage their rational thinking but to engage their emotions. The two key elements of leadership stories that I’m going to talk about are, in fact, the two elements of engaging emotions.

There seem to be many factors involved in engaging emotions. If I asked you to condense them into two, what do you think they would be? Let me share with you the two key elements that I’ve identified. These two elements are rooted in our evolutionary nature.

The first key element is imagery. The more vivid an image, the more it engages our emotions.

Why is that? Let’s go back to evolution. Humans evolved from primates, and primates don’t understand abstract concepts. You can’t tell a primate about a banana; it won’t know what you’re saying. But if you show it a picture of a banana, you can trigger its instincts and engage its emotions.

For example, if I’m trying to persuade you to donate to a charity like the Hope Project, I could tell you about how many underprivileged children there are in rural areas or how many students in mountainous regions can’t afford school supplies. This information can certainly engage your emotions. However, these words might not be as effective as a single image.

You probably remember the famous image associated with the Hope Project, the “big-eyed girl.” That image had a more profound impact than a thousand words. Why? Because imagery engages our emotions.

The first key element in engaging emotions is imagery, and the second key element is proximity. Things that are closer to us emotionally have a stronger impact on our emotions. This proximity includes physical distance, but it’s primarily psychological distance.

For instance, there are similar projects to the Hope Project in Africa. Convincing you to donate to the Hope Project in China might not be as straightforward as convincing you to donate to the same project in your own country. Why is that? To explain this, let’s go back to our evolutionary nature.

Our earliest sense of belonging was to the immediate group around us, our tribe. We had deeper emotional connections with them. The closer the proximity, the greater the emotional resonance.

Therefore, the second key element of a compelling story is proximity. Stories that are closer to the audience emotionally are more likely to engage their emotions and resonate with them.

03 – Case Study: The Rebirth of the Eagle

I just discussed the two key elements of engaging emotions: imagery and proximity. These are also the two key elements of leadership stories.

Leadership is about mobilizing people to solve difficult problems, and engaging emotions is more important than engaging rationality in this process. To achieve this, storytelling is necessary. The purpose of storytelling in leadership is not entertainment; therefore, the intricacies of the plot are not important. The goal is to engage emotions. Thus, the two key elements of leadership stories are imagery and proximity, not plot.

Have you ever heard the story of “The Rebirth of the Eagle”? This story is widely circulated in the business world, and many people have heard of it. The credit for popularizing this story goes to Li Dongsheng, the founder of TCL Group. He shared this story in 2006, which made it famous. Later, when TCL celebrated its 30th anniversary, they published a corporate history book titled “The Rebirth of the Eagle.” Clearly, TCL has adopted this story as its symbol.

While this story seems to have had a good impact in terms of dissemination, you should note that it’s not necessarily a good leadership story. It’s a short story, and as you read it, you might wonder: what’s wrong with this story?

The story is about an eagle. Eagles are the longest-living birds in the world, with a lifespan of up to 70 years. However, when an eagle reaches the age of 40, it must make a difficult but crucial decision. At this point, its beak becomes long and curved, almost touching its chest; its claws start to age and become ineffective at catching prey; its feathers grow thick, and its wings become very heavy, making flying extremely difficult.

At this stage, the eagle has only two choices: either wait to die or go through a painful renewal process lasting 150 excruciating days. It must work hard to fly to the mountaintop, build a nest on a cliff, and stay there, not flying. The eagle first uses its beak to strike the rock until it completely falls off, then patiently waits for a new beak to grow.

The eagle will use its newly grown beak to pluck out the aging toenails on its claws one by one, with drops of blood falling.

04 – Animal Fables Are Not Good Stories

I’d like to draw your attention to a new point. Previously, I contrasted telling stories with presenting facts or reasoning, but in reality, they are not entirely opposed.

When Li Dongsheng was telling “The Rebirth of the Eagle” to TCL employees, he added a crucial sentence at the end. Li Dongsheng said, “This article about eagles has deeply touched me and made me further appreciate the necessity and urgency of TCL’s cultural transformation and innovation.”

Have you noticed how important this sentence is? It indicates that Li Dongsheng was actually using this story to convey a message, which was the necessity and urgency of cultural transformation and innovation. So, what he was doing was essentially conveying facts or reasoning through a story.

Previously, I juxtaposed storytelling and factual reasoning, but now you may have realized that they are not entirely separate. Stories often contain underlying messages or reasoning, even though facts or reasoning may not be explicitly stated within the story.

Stories inherently have a message, which means that storytelling not only engages emotions but also appeals to rationality. Moreover, stories hide the message within the narrative, allowing you to subconsciously accept the message, which can be more effective than directly presenting facts or reasoning. You should now have a better understanding of the importance of storytelling because it engages both rationality and emotions.

However, “The Rebirth of the Eagle” lacks strength in engaging emotions due to the distance issue. Additionally, because of the distance problem, its power in engaging rationality is also not very strong.

Did you know that “The Rebirth of the Eagle” is a fabricated story? The behaviors described in the story are not accurate representations of eagles. Even if we assume the story is true, it still doesn’t prove the point that Li Dongsheng wanted to make, which is the necessity and urgency of TCL’s cultural transformation and innovation.

Why? Because eagles are eagles, and TCL is TCL. What works for an eagle may not necessarily work for TCL. This again highlights the issue of distance. If you tell a story about an eagle needing transformation, and therefore TCL needs transformation, what if I tell you a story about a tortoise not needing transformation and living longer than eagles? Does that mean TCL doesn’t need transformation?

You might have realized by now that imagery and proximity not only help engage emotions but also enhance the power of rational persuasion. The more vivid the story and the closer it is to the audience, the more specific and persuasive the message becomes.

In the case of Li Dongsheng’s “The Rebirth of the Eagle,” it had imagery but was distant from the audience. If we consider a perfect score for leadership stories as 100, Li Dongsheng’s story would only earn a 50.

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