10 OF THE BEST LEADERSHIP STORIES TO BRING YOUR LEADERSHIP ACTIVITIES TO LIFE

Jul 14, 2022 | Coaching, Facilitation, Leadership

Practical tips for Leadership Coaches, Consultants and Trainers

Dr Sukhwant Bal: growmoreleaders.com

The power of leadership stories

Leadership stories are a great way of stimulating leadership activities. They’re able to convey key teaching points simply and elegantly. Long after people leave the leadership workshops – people still remember the stories they heard. In simple, compelling stories:

  • Get to the heart of your leadership message
  • They make leadership more accessible and human
  • They stimulate conversations and provoke debate
  • They allow participants to make their own sense and meaning of leadership
  • They encourage participants to share their own stories and reflect on their own leadership experiences
  • You don’t need PowerPoint slides to bring stories to life

For leadership stories to work they need to reinforce a key teachable point. The best leadership stories are real – grounded in your own life and your own experiences. However, for inspiration, I’d like to share with you 10 of the most popular stories I have used in our leadership workshops. I’ve no doubt you will have come across some of them before. My challenge here is to share new content you may not have seen elsewhere.   

1. How to overcome self-limiting beliefs: The Two Wolves Story

  • We champion the idea that leadership development starts on the inside. You have to lead yourself before you can effectively lead others. Self-leadership is about knowing how to silence your inner Critic and tapping into your purpose and strengths, so you are able to show up more consistently as the best version of yourself. Your energy either brings light to others or casts a shadow. 
  • This folk story is of a young girl who asks her dad: ‘how come I see two types of dad. At times a happy, loving and caring dad. And at other times, an angry, frustrated bitter dad?
  • The dad replies: ‘It’s as though I have two Wolves on my shoulder. A happy, optimistic Wolf. And an angry, pessimistic Wolf’
  • The daughter asks: ‘which one wins’?
  • The dad replies: ‘The one I feed’. 
  • We ask participants to work as a pair and to highlight the key messages in the story
  • We invite the pairs to share their insights as a table discussion and what does this story mean for them?  
  • The Facilitator goes around each table and asks for their top insights and writes them on a flipchart. 
  • This then leads to an activity on how participants can learn to be their own best friend. This is covered in our blog: The 10 Best Leadership Activities.  

2. How to build a culture of accountability: The NASA Story

Leadership and accountability are two-sides of the same coin. Accountability is an attitude and mindset of solving a problem and seeing it through to the end. 

In organisational life, it is too easy to pass the blame onto someone else. To say it’s not my responsibility. To say this is above my pay grade. That someone more senior will fix this issue or problem. 

High performance and great places to work require accountability and leadership from everyone – regardless of position or job title. The following story illustrates this well.

This is the well known story of a Journalist waiting at NASA reception, ready to interview an Astronaut. Whilst waiting they can’t help notice the diligence and care being shown by the Cleaner. 

She is on her hands and knees cleaning under the chairs. She’s on the step ladder cleaning the dust on top of the picture frames. She polishes the glass coffee table and checks there are no marks left. 

She asks the Journalist: ‘Has someone been to see you? You’ve been waiting here over 10 minutes’.

The Journalist can’t help but comment: ‘I notice how much care and pride you take in your work, what’s your secret’?

To which the Cleaner replies: ‘No secret. I’m part of the team helping put a man on the moon’. 

This is a great story to get people talking about accountability. Going the extra mile and doing more than is minimally required. 

  • We ask participants: what are the benefits to this cleaner of taking ownership and accountability? 
  • We ask ‘why should she bother to ask the Journalist if he is being seen to’ – it’s not in her job description.
  • We ask what are the conditions needed for colleagues to take ownership and accountability?
  • We ask participants to identify 2-3 issues, challenges, ineffective working practices, where they could take accountability to fix them and what does good look like?
  • This story leads to self reflection. It leads to peer-to-peer coaching and it leads to table discussions. All the while colleagues are deepening their understanding of leadership, accountability and what they can start to do differently. 

3. How to position change, so employees become advocates: The Cheetah Story

Leaders can often fail to engage employees behind the need for change. And can then get blown off course by passive resistance 

This story is a great way to highlight the importance of how to take everyone with you and how internal change makes more sense when you directly tie it back to the benefits for customers. 

  • We ask participants to imagine they’re on the African savannah. They’re in a Land Rover, protected from the sourcing sun, surveying the landscape.
  • As they pick up a pair of binoculars, they notice a Cheetah sitting in the tall grass. 
  • They pan the horizon and see a herd of Gazelle, some 100 metres from the Cheetah
  • As they pan back to the Cheetah, they can see it is now on its feet. Slowly and quietly stepping through the tall grass.
  • As it comes within 20 metres of the Gazelle, the Cheetah is spotted and the Gazelle run
  • The had of the Cheetah is locked on to one of the Gazelle
  • As the Cheetah gets closer the Gazelle does a ninety degree turn. The Cheetah’s hind legs give way, the tail swings left to help manoeuvre and the front legs are pounding away
  • The analogy of the story: imagine you as senior leaders are in the head. Imagine your customer is the Gazelle. Imagine your employees are the legs – quite literally doing the legwork. 
  • Change makes sense or does not make sense spending on your perspective. 
  • One minute the legs were told to go in one direction and then perform a  ninety degree turn. The legs are wondering ‘does the head know where it is going’? 
  • But if the legs had the heads perspective – would change make sense? 
  • We ask managers: what are the key insights they can draw from this story? We ask participants to pool their wisdom in  table discussion. 
  • We then ask, how will they now practically apply these insights in leading change. 
  • We ask each table to create a ‘before’ and ‘after’ storyboard on flipchart. 
  • Each table walks around the room and takes some inspiration they can bring back to their own storyboard.    

4. How to spot opportunities in change: The Shoe story

Change always comes with two travelling companions: opportunities and anxiety. Your chances of success during any transformation depends on which travelling companion you pay most attention to. 

In the 1950s Northampton was a hive of activity in the shoe industry. The town was known for shoe making and competition was tough.

Unbeknown to each other, two companies decided to explore opening new markets and both decided on identifying opportunities in Kenya. It was part of the commonwealth and there were established trade routes. 

One of the Sales people from Company A landed at Nairobi Airport and was in the taxi making their way to their hotel. They were jet-lagged, tired and struggling with the heat.  As they looked out the taxi window they saw no one was wearing shoes – everyone was walking bare feet. They asked the taxi driver to stop at the nearest Post Office, where they dispatched a telegram: ‘No one here wears shoes. Cancel the shipping container. Zero growth opportunities’.

Two days later the Sales Person from Company B landed at the same airport and was enroute to their hotel. They too noticed that few people were wearing shoes. Likewise, they sent a telegram back: ‘No one here wears shoes. Huge market opportunity, send shipping containers with sandals, trainers and children’s football boots’.  

  • We ask workshop participants, how come two people see the same thing but interpret it in two very different ways? What are they paying attention to? What’s different when it comes to their mindset? 
  • We ask, what are the parallels when it comes to their own change agenda? How can they set their teams up to spot the opportunities vs focusing on what they might lose or their worries?
  • We ask, what conversations do they need to Facilitate, so they can help their teams spot the learning opportunities, the personal growth opportunities, the innovation opportunities with the changes they’ll be implementing? 

5. How to put setbacks into perspective: The Lottery Story 

During change and transformation it is easy to get battle weary, fatigued and lose perspective. Small issues can get out of context and become insurmountable problems. 

This simple story is a great way of helping people see the bigger picture. How in the scheme of things, the challenges they’re facing are within their grasp to resolve.

The story goes: a Motivational Speaker comes on stage and asks their audience, hands-up, how many of you would be happy if you won the lottery tomorrow? Almost every hand goes up. 

Congratulations, says the Speaker. You have won 3 lotteries. 

The first lottery, is you have found the only blue planet we know of. There are billions of rocky planets out there, but you have found the one with amazing sunsets, lush green forests and an abundance of life. The odds of finding this planet are millions against. This is the first lottery.

The sccon glitter you have won, happened in the race for life when you were conceived. The probability of you being here and not some other human being are statistically rare.  How lucky are you?

Let me share the third lottery you have won. This is the first time in human history you do not have to worry about where your next meal is coming from or where to find your next glass of clean water. Human beings have walked on this planet for a million years and this is the ‘golden age’ of plenty. You are spoiled for choice and will never go hungry. How lucky are you?

The Speaker then asks: raise your hands if you’re happy to be alive and happy to be here!  Every hand goes up!

  • We ask employees and leaders to identify: what are the key life lessons in this story? 
  • How can they apply these life lessons to themselves? How would they lead differently if they focused on optimism and gratitude vs pessimism and frustration?
  • We ask what conversations will you have with your teams to stay grounded, to put issues into perspective and to keep reminding themselves of what is working vs broken?
  • We ask what rituals and practices might you build into every meeting – to reinforce the ‘lottery wins’ it is easy to take for granted?    

6. How to build a positive culture: The mirror and window story

This story is borrowed from Jim Collin’s book: Good To Great and his definition of level 5 leadership. 

How do you inspire employees to turn up to work where they ‘play to win’ vs ‘play not to lose’? 

The real risk for any leader is failing to nurture and develop more leaders around them. When ego gets in the way, they believe only they have the skills and capabilities to deliver results. But this inflated sense of ego comes with some serious costs

Humility is viewed as an important leadership quality but rarely discussed in any meaningful way.

In this story, a leader shares how their leadership manta is to look out the window when things go well and to look in the mirror whenever things go wrong. 

They consciously make it their business to ‘catch people doing things right’. Whenever they see successful results, metrics and outcomes – they look out of the window. In meetings they give credit and recognition to others for success. In one-to-ones they are fulsome in their praise when results are being achieved. They work on the ethos: never take success for granted and always credit others. 

When they encounter failure, the first thing they do is look in the mirror and ask: what can I learn from this, so I can put things right and bounce back stronger?

In their meetings and one-to-ones, they ask others the same question: ‘what can I learn from this, so I can put things right and bounce back stronger’.

Over time this leadership ethos has created a high performance culture. In looking out the window when things go well and looking in the mirror when things fail, they have instilled psychological safety. 

Every employee turns up each day to ‘play to win’ vs ‘play not to lose’.

The conversation with leaders in our workshops is: what inspiration can you take from this story?

  • What would your typical week look like if you were to look out the window when things go well and look in the mirror when you encounter setbacks? 
  • What do your most recent engagement or climate surveys indicate – on how people want to be led by you?           

7. How to lead yourself and live a happy life: Buddhist Wisdom

Bina was a young professional working for an international firm. She was always on the go. Always searching for ‘the next thing’. The next promotion. The next challenge. The next opportunity. You get the picture.

She was driven and wanted to make the best of her skills, her talents and her time. Yet, somehow she found herself successful in work, but unhappy in life. 

She believed happiness was just around the corner. She read books on happiness and listened to podcasts on how to live a successful life. But she still hadn’t found what she was looking for.

By chance she met a colleague on a business trip. As they walked one evening in a large City they saw a sign for ‘The Happiness Centre’: guest speaker will start at 7:00pm. As luck would have it, they had time to go in, take a seat and they waited in eager anticipation. 

At the dot at 7:00pm a woman walked on stage, sat cross legged, greeted everyone with Namaste and she began her talk. 

Her opening line was: If you want to live a happy life, you have to live a happy NOW. As you live your seconds, so you live your minutes. And as you live your minutes, so you live your hours. And as you live your hours, so you live your days. And as you live your days, so you live your life. 

All you have is now. You can’t postpone your happiness until tomorrow. You can not change the wrongs of the past. All you have is now. 

Think of happiness as a pearl necklace. A pearl necklace is made of 50-60-70 pearls all strung together to make something special. Each pearl is a metaphor for your hours. As you string together happy ‘nows’, you will have lived a happy life. 

So cultivate an attitude of gratitude. You will find happiness in the most unexpected moments. Stop chasing. Stop searching. You are worthy of happiness not by what you have, but by who you become. 

Bina had found the answer she was looking for. 

Inner happiness is the door that leads to inner leadership.                 

8. Leadership is about what you do, more than what you say: The crow bar story

Bill was the new COO of a manufacturing company. When he joined a few months back he heard about this company’s legendary safety standards. Everywhere he went, he’d see the slogan: ‘Safety is our No1 priority’. It had been at least 2 years since they last had a significant personal injury.

Bill was on a meet and greet tour of their manufacturing plants. Today he was in a small town in the midwest. This was his chance to meet shop floor colleagues and the management team and to learn more about their plans and their culture.

As he liked to do, he asked the Head of Security if he could just walk around the plant for half an hour unannounced, so he could ‘feel and smell’ the place without everyone being on their best behaviour. 

He put on his overalls and his sneakers and quietly walked around the site. He nodded to acknowledge people, but otherwise kept himself to himself. The place was now busy and in full swing. Bill was getting a peek into what it was like working there. 

As he walked to the management floor, he introduced himself to the Plant Director and asked if during the next break time he could have an impromptu town hall meeting and can we gather on the shopfloor. 

Sure enough, word got around, the new COO was in and wanted to hold a town hall meeting. 

Everyone was gathered at the designated place and waiting for Bill to arrive. 

The first thing Bill did before saying anything was he walked up to a rusty worn out sign on the wall, which read ‘Safety Is Our No1 Priority’ and yanked it off the wall with a crowbar. He had grabbed the attention of his audience. 

Bill thanked everyone for showing up. He told them how impressed he was with the safety record they had achieved and the performance of this plant. But I know you have a way to go. Success breeds complacency. And complacency leads to accidents. 

Earlier today I walked around this plant without the correct PPE.  I didn’t wear safety goggles. I didn’t wear safety boots. I didn’t wear safety gloves or a helmet and not one person stopped me. Not one person challenged me. Not one person looked twice to point out the risks and offer me the correct PPE.

The reason why I ripped-off the sign ‘Safety is our No1 Priority’, is because it is blatantly untrue. And the only time we get to put it back, is when we truly practise what we preach. When we can challenge unacceptable behaviour and recognise positive safety behaviours. 

I’d like you to have a conversation with the person next to you. What’s my obligation to you, so you are able to go home safely each day to your family?

You have a duty of care to yourself and each other and sadly I didn’t see that today. I’d like to run some listening sessions with small teams of 6 colleagues on the hour whilst I’m here for the next 2 days. I want to hear how you will role model safety behaviour with each other – so you practise our values – not just pay lip service to them.

To this day, 5 years on, people still talk about the impact of Bill’s site visit. And the graphic way he brought to life the bad habits they had slipped into. 

The moral of the story: whatever your corporate values – if they’re not being lived, if they’re not being role modelled, if those who breach those values are not challenged – your values are not worth the paper they’re written on. Actions speak louder than words.        

9. How to be resourceful during tough times: The car fixer’s story

Janet managed a team of Consulting Engineers and the last few years had been financially challenging. The consulting business had lost a few significant clients and was having to cut-back on expenses. They were also having to work with systems and tools that were now a few years out-dated.

One of her more challenging team members was Colin. He was a bright, capable individual, but he was super critical of his old laptop, which took a good 5 minutes to get up and running each morning. He complained his office desk was not ergonomically designed. That he could stand up and use his computer. He regularly commented he was getting back pain from his old office chair and could he put in request for a more modern chair with lumbar support. His office lamp didn’t throw out enough light and he needed the main lights on during the darker months to read reports  During these tough times, Janet had to decline all of his requests. 

Janet and Colin did not live too far from each other and they often car-shared on the days Colin didn’t cycle into work or decide to work from home.

One one occasion when Colin was working from home, he asked Janet if she’d mind dropping off some confidential client reports which were on his desk. Janet obliged and dropped them off around 6:30pm. 

When she rang the doorbell, Colin’s wife opened the door and invited her in. She mentioned Colin was in the garage. He was a car enthusiast and repaired vintage cars as a hobby. She suggested she go over and say hello to Colin. 

Janet walked over to the garage. It was tiny. Barely enough space for Colin to squeeze either side of the car. He had one feeble light bulb hanging over the engine. She found Colin on his back on the bare concrete floor, struggling to change the oil filter on this 1960’s car. His toolkit seemed to consist of a few spanners and screwdrivers.

Janet was surprised to say the least. Here was the same man who complained about his out-dated equipment in the office.The chair that gave him backache, the lamp that didn’t throw out enough light and his laptop which was out-dated. And here he was working in cramped conditions, with just the bare essentials as tools. 

She called out to Colin. He stood up with a smile ear-to ear. Nothing makes me happier than when I’m tinkering on an old car. I know my way around these old cars now and don’t need lots of fancy gadgets. 

Janet smiled. She had learned something about Colin. She knew when he was motivated he wasn’t likely to complain about his laptop or office equipment. She needed to be resourceful in finding projects that played to Colin’s strengths. She also knew she needed Colin to be resourceful in finding hacks and shortcuts to problems – just as he was doing with vintage cars.

The moral of the story: difficult times require us to be creative, spend company money as though it were our own and focus on being resourceful.                  

10. How to prioritise and avoid burnout: The glass and rocks story 

In his book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey shares an analogy of rock, sand and water. 

It’s a powerful analogy to share in helping any team ruthlessly prioritise their workload, so they are not overwhelmed or exhausted. 

The story also gives the team a shared language – which is all about giving priority to ‘the rocks’. 

Covey’s analogy is simple. Imagine a glass – as the representation of our working week. In short, it has a capacity. 

Rocks denote the big mission critical tasks and priorities.

The sand represents smaller tasks and less important prioritise

The water represents admin, reading and responding to emails and attending meetings.

Imagine you fill your class with water and sand.

The minute to add the rocks in – the water spills over. Quite literally, your time is spilling into your evenings and weekends. 

If this becomes your default way of working, the water creeps even more into your evenings and weekends, until you simply don’t have enough hours in the day. 

The life skill is to prioritise your rocks and place this first in your glass (your working day). Plan and book otu the time for working through your big priorities (your rocks).

Only then, should you move onto ‘the sand’ (smaller tasks)  and only then add ‘the water’ (your admin). 

His key lesson: never sacrifice the important work by the urgent work. If we are not careful we can fill our days with activities. What matters is to fill our days with work that adds value and makes a difference to our customers – otherwise, why are we doing it?

So a team can agree ‘what are the rocks’ we all need to prioritise? How do we help each other to deliver on our ‘rocks’? What elements of the sand/water do we need to de-prioritise? Because if everything matters – nothing matters.      

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