Storytelling for Leaders

Sharpening the saw

In his best selling book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey tells the story of a man who was walking through a forest when he came across a frustrated lumberjack.

The lumberjack was trying to cut down a tree and was swearing and cursing as he laboured in vain.

“What’s the problem?”  The man asked.

“My saw’s blunt and won’t cut the tree properly” the lumberjack responded.

“Why don’t you just sharpen it?”

“Because then I would have to stop sawing” said the lumberjack.

“But if you sharpened your saw, you could cut more efficiently and effectively than before.”

“But I don’t have time to stop!” The lumberjack retorted, getting more frustrated.

The man shook his head and kept on walking, leaving the lumberjack to his pointless frustration…

I love the way this story tells of how we can fall into the trap of continuing down a path of struggle, when stopping and ‘sharpening the saw’ would be the wiser and more effective approach.

Expressed as a metaphor, ‘sharpening our saw’ aptly portrays the benefits of taking time out to hone our skills, delegate work, or look after ourselves better, instead of doing the same thing over and over again (but getting nowhere in return).

The reason why this message is so powerful, is because it is delivered in the form of a story.

And when it comes to successful leadership, stories are one of the most potent communication tools we can harness.


Because they evoke an emotional response. We can visualise the situation, the setting, the people, and the words that are exchanged. We feel empathy for the people in the stories. We see ourselves in the characters. And as a result, the meaning is more likely to stick.

The art of storytelling has been practiced since the dawn of time.  People are genetically wired for stories. It is the most basic and effective way of passing on knowledge and information, beliefs and history.

Where can you use stories as a leader?

Here are just six examples of when stories can be immensely valuable:

1. As cautionary tales for rules and norms (OHS is a ripe breeding ground for stories).
2. To give meaning behind an aspect of culture or ritual.
3. To help manage change or tumultuous times in an organisation.
4. In helping to communicate a vision for the future.
5. To evoke emotional connection with the organisation through telling stories about  its roots or beginnings.
6. In telling people something about yourself as a leader, your struggles, lessons and challenges that you have overcome.

As a leader, stories help you to show authenticity and build credibility.

Think about the myths and stories in your organisation that you can tap into.

What can you share personally about your journey into leadership that could resonate with others in your team?

Are there stories from sport or myths you can borrow to make a point?

I would love to hear your stories of storytelling!


  1. Emma Mclean on October 20, 2015 at 9:29 am

    Great article thank you! I start all my presentations with a story and I feel like I gain an instant connection when I do this. I have also started using stories when talking to teams about the types of changes that other companies have gone through and I find these “war stories” are invaluable. Thanks for the further inspiration!

  2. cavegirlmba on September 17, 2013 at 5:28 am

    Thanks – beautiful read. Regarding my own stories of storytelling, feel free to visit the CaveGirl cave.

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Suzi McAlpine

Suzi McAlpine is a Leadership Development Specialist and author of the award-winning leadership blog, The Leader’s Digest. She writes and teaches about accomplished leadership, what magic emerges when it’s present, and how to ignite better leadership in individuals, teams and organisations. Suzi has been a leader and senior executive herself, working alongside CEOs and executive teams in a variety of roles. Her experience has included being a head-hunter, an executive coach, and a practice leader for a division at the world’s largest HR consulting firm. Suzi provides a range of services as a Leadership Development Specialist, including executive coaching, leadership workshops and development programmes for CEOs, leadership teams and organisations throughout New Zealand.

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