Stan Ward is one of the most engaging teachers on leadership I know. He’s engaging because he uses stories. I’m excited to have him guest post for you. – Kevin

Here’s a new leadership lesson from an old story. What can leaders learn from the story of David and Goliath? No, I’m not suggesting a “defeating the giants” pep talk. Instead, let’s consider how the 1 Samuel 17 illustrates a leadership tool as old as history, yet still relevant today – the leadership story.

In 1 Samuel 17, the Israelites are despondent, and their king is fearful; an entire nation cowers before the giant Goliath. But then something happens: a shepherd boy stands before King Saul and tells a story:

“Master,” said David, “don’t give up hope. I’m ready to go and fight this Philistine.”

Saul answered David, “You can’t go and fight this Philistine. You’re too young and inexperienced—and he’s been at this fighting business since before you were born.”

David said, “I’ve been a shepherd, tending sheep for my father. Whenever a lion or bear came and took a lamb from the flock, I’d go after it, knock it down, and rescue the lamb. If it turned on me, I’d grab it by the throat, wring its neck, and kill it. Lion or bear, it made no difference—I killed it. And I’ll do the same to this Philistine pig who is taunting the troops of God-Alive. God, who delivered me from the teeth of the lion and the claws of the bear, will deliver me from this Philistine.”

Saul said, “Go. And God help you!”  (From The Message)

What just happened? A powerless follower entered an organization in chaos, and when he got his chance to stand before the CEO, he changed the boss’s mind with a story – moving the boss to action (and yes, the boss delegated away a crucial duty, but that is something we can discuss another time).

The right story at the right time transforms the hopeless and creates heroes among the nameless masses.

Seriously. Stories are that good.

I’m so convinced in the (underappreciated) power of stories as a leadership tool that I’m currently writing a PhD dissertation on how community leaders use story as a leadership tool. From the literature I’ve read so far, I’ve noted three themes in leadership stories that I want to share with you. Though not all leadership stories include all three of these, they often contain two.

  1. Leadership stories are educational. Although our example from 1 Samuel 17 lacks this quality, leadership stories often convey factual information. Think of “how-to” stories where you explain how you solved a specific problem. These stories can also express organizational culture (how we do things around here). Be advised however: simply conveying facts is not story’s forte.
  2. Leadership stories are relational. Sometimes leadership stories connect people (think about how entertaining or emotional stories can connect you with an audience). Other times leadership stories connect concepts, like linking the present actions of an organization with its historic foundations. For an example of linking history to a present situation, look again at 1 Samuel 17. David connects past victories over wild animals with confidence in a present victory of an uncircumcised Philistine.
  3. Leadership stories are inspirational. This third factor is crucial. Leadership stories don’t just inform people, leadership stories move people to action. Howard Gardner’s (1995) Leading Minds explains that leadership stories tell people who they are, where they are going, what obstacles are in the way, and how they will overcome those obstacles. Leadership stories help move people from one state of being to another. In 1 Samuel 17, David’s story moved Saul from decision avoiding (doing nothing) to decision making (allowing David to confront the Philistine).

So how do you apply this? Good question. I suggest keeping a file with stories that inspire you or stories from your own life that might inspire others. Look for ways to incorporate these stories in both group presentations and private conversations. Finally, if you want help crafting your leadership story, please contact me. I’d love to hear your story and help you craft it to impact others.

Stanley J. Ward is the Director of Campus Life and Ministry at The Brook Hill School, a published author, and a napkin theologian. When not writing his dissertation, he also plays ukulele. Email him if you want to know more about leadership stories.