April 14, 2016 / Esther Choy


Telling stories makes us more compassionate leaders. It sharpens our own emotional intelligence as we look back and explore what our experiences have meant to us. It helps us sort out difficult situations from the past so that we can move forward with greater grace and understanding. And it helps us use the meaningful and even the difficult moments from our own lives to inspire others and strengthen our bonds with them. But before we start mining our experiences for stories that will convey compassionate leadership, let’s ask an important question.

Should we strive to be compassionate leaders?

Often, our vision of a leader is someone others tremble to approach. The Great and Powerful Oz that sends the Cowardly Lion jumping out the window. Someone with a booming voice, an arsenal of smart words, and a habit of setting others off-center so that he or she remains in control.

But research has shown that “givers”—who are more like the softhearted man behind the curtain than the booming Great and Powerful Oz hologram—often have a competitive advantage, as long as they don’t let others manipulate their natural impulse to be kind and selfless. Wharton Professor Adam Grant found that in groups, people wanted “givers” on their team. They preferred to work with them, and trusted them to lead. And, most importantly, Grant found that stress levels decreased when people trusted their leaders to be compassionate. And that trust gave workers the freedom to be creative.

Not only that, when people see their bosses helping someone, they often get a “warm, fuzzy feeling,” and this feeling actually makes them more loyal, says Psychology Today. Plus, this emotional uplift often translates into a desire to follow the boss’s example and be more compassionate themselves. So the boss’s compassion influences the whole culture! And this culture creates space where everyone feels safe to be creative.

It makes sense. In one of the most-viewed TED talks of all time, leadership expert Simon Sinek emphasizes that effective leaders hire people who believe what they believe. When employees see leaders acting on what they believe, this will only increase their loyalty and their sense that they are working for the right organization.

So, if you’re convinced that you want to let your “softer side” show even more, here’s how storytelling can help.

Storytelling Sharpens Your Emotional Intelligence

So often as leaders, we go from one experience to another without setting aside time to reflect. We are busy, project-focused, driven. But we are also making tough calls and rising to challenges that we need time to process. Storytelling is a way of carving out time to make sense of our experiences. It lets us go back in time and focus on working through a few small moments.

Focusing on those small moments allows us to imagine what might be on someone else’s mind. And imagining another person’s thought process sharpens our emotional intelligence. Difficult work situations almost always involve other people—let’s be honest!— and it’s tempting to oversimplify colleagues’ motives and make them the villains.

But good stories refuse to oversimplify.

What if you told a story that concluded, “She acted this way because she’s a mean old witch”? That would be a shallow story indeed. Not only would it show a lack of compassion and empathy, it would also be a snoozer!

What if you told a story that, instead, asked questions about why your colleague who had always been a fair and reasonable person suddenly cheated you? This deeper story, about why your colleague acted this way, is the one your audience wants to hear. And more than that, it’s the story that will help you begin to understand and regulate how you felt about the situation. It’s the story that will actually help you find closure.

How To Tell Compassionate Stories

1. Think about the story of your career track. Start to make lists of decisive moments along the way:

  • Points where you felt lost or stuck
  • Unexpected successes
  • Projects that failed
  • Coworker relationships that challenged you (sparking inspiration OR calling for extra people skills!)

2. Circle the moments you want to explore further. (Save the others—you may want to explore them later.)3. Jot notes about the situation:

  • Details you remember (sights, sounds, smells, tastes, tactile feelings)
  • Emotions that surfaced
  • Helpful, guiding conversations you had

4. If possible, carry this germ of the story around with you for a few days. Think of your story as a Velcro ball, and let the ideas, conversations, and memories of the next few days stick to it.

5. Start drafting your story. Write a draft that no one is going to see. Write about the scary stuff. Write past the edges of where you feel comfortable. As novelist Jonathan Franzen once put it, your writing needs to be a “personal adventure into the frightening or the unknown.” You always have the delete button you can press later, but this is where you can sharpen your emotional intelligence and use narrative to figure out why all the people involved (including you) acted the way they did.

Use Your Story to Inspire Others and Create Bonds

Since one of your main goals is not just to figure things out for yourself but to have a story to share with others, shape your draft into the version you are comfortable sharing. Ask yourself how you can be honest yet discreet. Ask yourself what you hope others will gain from your story.

Make sure you are working toward a final version that is:

  • Honest about your struggles.
  • Specific—because specific details resonate with others far more than broad generalizations do.
  • Kind to yourself and to the story’s other key players.
  • Uplifting as you share what you have learned.
  • Intended to convey a central message.

As you craft and then tell your compassionate story, you are setting the tone for your organization. Will it be a tone of fear and repression, or one of trust and creativity?Would you like feedback on your story? We would be happy to provide you with a complimentary consultation. Schedule yours today!

Esther Choy

Esther Choy founded Leadership Story Lab in 2010 to help others leverage the art of storytelling to create extraordinary opportunities.
Karla Trotman and Robert Pasin

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"This is an amazing and insightful post! I hadn’t thought of that so you broadened my perspective. I always appreciate your insight!" - Dan B.

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