Peter Christie on the power of storytelling for effective leaders

As a youngster, Peter Christie was enormously fond of Western movies, particularly those which featured North American Indians giving cowboys what he calls “a good klapping”. One movie in particular made a big impression on the youngster: The Great Sioux Massacre, where, at the Battle of the Little Bighorn, shaman Big Chief Sitting Bull led the defeat of General Custer and other troops of the US Army. Peter can still recall a gift he received from his parents at this time: a colourful North American Indian costume that included feathered headdress, leather-tasselled vest, moccasins and tomahawk. Needless to say it immediately became a firm favourite of the energetic six-year-old who, when asked what he wanted to be when he grew up, answered without hesitation, “Big Chief Sitting Bull”. Peter being quite the chatterbox, his dad adapted this to “Big Chief Talking Bull”, and the name stuck. Peter has always had a liking for stories – reading them, telling them, watching them, and writing them. As an adult, he turned this talent into a career, establishing a successful consultancy that teaches business people how to unlock their storytelling potential in order to become better, more influential leaders.

After completing his studies, which culminated in a Master's in industrial psychology, Peter spent five years working the corporate circuit, one day choosing to strike out on his own as a change management specialist. It wasn't long before Peter identified a very clear need in the market for his eclectic mix of talent, skill and experience.

"I recognised that within business, communication was a perennial problem. It was the uppermost problem in organisational life. Being a storyteller, I felt that there might be a niche for this work in organisations."

The concept took off quickly, Peter recalls, spurred on by a presentation hosted by Wits Business School, where international management theorist Ronnie Lessem argued for the centrality of storytelling as a universal leadership competency. Peter's approach to clients' needs is varied, and he tailors his work to suit both the situation he is brought in to assist with, and the people with whom he is working. Storytelling is of course key to all of this, and Peter has developed what he calls a storytelling framework to help leaders use anecdotal, historical, biographical and allegorical stories to convey their messages.

What is it about storytelling that makes it such a powerful tool? Peter explains: "Stories are much better remembered than conceptual models or PowerPoint presentations. Great stories stay with us, whether in movies we've seen or books we've read. Despite their sometimes fictional or allegorical nature, they invariably contain wise truths."

"There is no doubt that storytelling is the most powerful form of communication. In fact, the results of numerous empirical studies prove this."

Stories are also a great way to inspire and motivate, and can be used to address various areas of concern, he adds. "Think about the whole realm of creativity. The first thing we need is inspiration - you need to be inspired to do innovative work. Stories can be a tremendously inspiring. They're also excellent tools in the realm of learning, because they help to ground abstract concepts in concrete realities. But of most relevance to leaders is storytelling connects people, strengthening and deepening their relationships."

According to Peter, in a corporate environment, stories are a great way to encourage teamwork and camaraderie, as they help people to better understand each other. "When we tell the story of our lives, for instance, it's quite different to the sanitised version of a CV," he says. Besides, who doesn't enjoy a good story?

"I've worked in some of the toughest boardrooms around and let me tell you, all people love stories. Stories are moving and reach people on a different level. They bypass people's intellects, seeping straight into their hearts. They engage their emotions. Corporate can be a cold place. Storytelling is a way to enliven it."

So where and how does the ability to tell a good story fit into the notion of managerial success and leadership? According to Peter, this is pretty simple: leaders become communicators. "As people move up in their careers, so their role changes, often becoming one of leading, and leadership has to do with communication. You cannot be a non-communicative leader," he explains. "Leadership has to do with two sides of the same coin - leaders and followers. Leaders must know the direction the group needs to take, and stories are a good way to communicate this."

But not everyone is comfortable standing at the front of a room addressing a crowd. Is a leader without strong communications skills thus ineffective? Of course not, they just need to focus on developing what's already innate, says Peter, and see storytelling as a way to add another tool to their toolkit; another arrow to their quiver. "Humans are a narrative species. There are those who are natural storytellers, who'll shoot the breeze anywhere, but children are able to communicate from their early years already, in simple storytelling forms. It's just a question of building that skill, and becoming a better storyteller," he says. "Storytelling is a skill worth developing, because it is incredibly powerful for a leader to hold a large and rapt audience in the palm of their hand."