How the Olympics and Leaders Inspire Us with Stories

Anyone who knows me, knows I’m an “Olympiholic”. It’s true – Summer, Winter – I love them all! Sports have always been an important part of my life and I’m a huge fan and admirer of gifted athletes. So imagine my excitement about the Summer Olympics kicking off this Friday! Let’s just say my social calendar may include some time with friends and family, but that time will be spent in front of some television set for the next two weeks. Living in Seattle, we were fortunate enough to go to the Vancouver Games and enjoy the event “live” in 2010. It was one of the most amazing experiences of my life and I hope to have the opportunity to enjoy the Olympics again, up-close and personal.

But beyond watching the amazing athletes, seeing new world records being set, and showcasing our national pride, what is it about the Olympics that is so captivating for people around the world?

For me, it’s about the STORIES! For those two weeks we will get to know many of the athletes because their personal stories are shared. Stories of their backgrounds, struggles, victories and life journeys. We feel like we know them and WE BECOME ENGAGED with their story. We follow and cheer for people we never had heard of before.  Remember “Eddie the Eagle”, the Ski Jumper from Great Britain? How about the Jamacian Bobsled Team? The movie, Cool Runnings even came from that story. We always get behind the person or team we KNOW. When your alma mater is playing – that’s who your pulling for. When you know players of a team, that is what engages your support.  There is a connection and that connection makes all the difference.

This got me thinking about how leaders can use stories to engage those they are leading, which is particularly helpful in leading a change effort. Just providing a list of reasons for the change is not nearly enough to inspire people to want to change. But a story can make all the difference. Painting the picture through a story of the current situation and describing what could or did happen after the change has a much bigger impact on people. Author, Steve Denning, talks about the subject on TEDx. In his session, Mr. Denning outlines four characteristics of leadership stories that do work:

  • The story must be authentically true. Not just with accurate facts, but with a description of what REALLY happened.  Example – “700 happy passengers reached New York after the Titanic’s maiden voyage.” This is a true fact, but it’s not the whole story.
  • The neuroscience of why Hollywood is right: although negative stories are useful for getting attention, to inspire action stories must be positive in tone.
  • Leadership stories need to be told in a minimalist form. When the storyteller sticks to the basic information without providing tons of details, the listener can focus on the main point of the story & their mind begins to think about, “What action can I take to implement the change?” It becomes the listener’s idea. Genius!
  • Complex ideas need to be communicated by contrasting the story of the situation before the change idea and the story of the situation after the change idea, with a story about radical management. Follow the link to his TED Talk and you’ll see an example of this.

Bottom line, stories resonate with people in a much richer way than a Powerpoint deck. We all have stories but maybe we just need to practice storytelling. Think about these types of stories and being practicing your version:

  • “Who Am I?” stories – a way to give a powerful insight into what really motivates you and can break down walls and help your team realize that you’re a person just like them.
  • “Why Am I here?” stories – enable you to replace suspicion with trust, and help your team realize that you don’t have any hidden agendas.
  • Teaching stories – think of fables.  What’s your version of “The boy that cried wolf”?
  • Vision stories – to remind your team of why they’re doing what they do.

After you’ve practiced, gather your team around the proverbial campfire and inspire them with your stories. You’ll be amazed how much influence you can have.

Martha Duesterhoft is a Partner with PeopleResults.  Follow her on Twitter @MDuesterhoft or connect with her by email at