Leadership and the power of storytelling
Written by Simon Austin — February 25, 2020
WHEN Sir Alex Ferguson addressed his Manchester United players ahead of the 2008 Champions League final in Moscow, he sought to emphasise the bond they all shared.
He could have spoken using generic words like unity and togetherness, but instead the Scot decided to tell a story; or rather their stories.
“We were in the dressing room when the boss came in,” Patrice Evra recalled last year. “As usual, the music stopped and you could hear a pin drop. Then Ferguson said, ‘I’ve already won.’
"We were like, ‘What’s he talking about? The game hasn’t even started.’ He turned to me, ‘Look at Patrice - he’s got 24 brothers and sisters. Imagine what his mother had to do to put food on the table.’
"Then Wayne Rooney, 'Look at Wayne - he grew up in one of the toughest parts of Liverpool.’ Then Park Ji-sung, ‘Look at Ji, he’s come all the way from South Korea.’
“As the boss talked about our stories, we began to realise he was referring to a fellowship. We were not just a football team, we were people from every corner of the world and now we were in Moscow fighting for a common cause.”
As we've outlined many times before, modern managers benefit from at least a passing knowledge of newer disciplines like data and sports science. But, as Ferguson showed, they’re also likely to require the ancient skill of storytelling.
Dr Pippa Grange, the former Head of People and Team Development at the Football Association, says: “The stories we tell are so important. By that I mean explaining who we are, what we are doing, why we are doing it and having everybody else in a position where they are into it as well.
“You can’t impose culture, just like you can’t impose values, but you can inspire, and storytelling is a great way to do that."
Former Children’s Laureate Michel Rosen says storytelling is effective because it is the most “elemental” form of communication.
“We have invented this marvellous thing called writing, but the word is attached to ink and paper or a screen,” Rosen said on a programme about storytelling on BBC Radio 4 last week. “When you tell stories directly in front of people and look at them, the words are attached to the body, every bit of it, with no tricks involved, no special effects.”
Clare Muireann Murphy, a professional storyteller who has worked with organisations ranging from Nasa to the National Theatre, added: “There’s something about the oral transmission of a story that meets the listener wherever they are.
“You’re opening the top of the head and turning on the cinema of the mind. I’ve had people describe it as travelling to another place - ‘I forget my to-do list and the room disappeared’.”
You can see this happening in the video below, when the former British and Irish Lions coach Jim Telfer addresses his eight forwards before the first Test against South Africa in 1997. With the players huddled round, Telfer begins in hushed tones.
As he continues, the Scot's voice rises in both volume and intensity as he outlines the challenges ahead.
“They don’t rate you. The only way to be rated is to stick one on them, to get right up in their faces and turn them back, knock them back. Outdo what they do.
“Outjump them, out-scrum them, out-ruck them, out-drive them, out-tackle them, until they’re fucking sick of you. Remember the pledges you made. Remember how you depend on each other at every phase; teams within teams, scrums, line-outs, ruck ball, tackles.”
When he finishes, some of the players are blowing hard and look as if they have actually been out on the pitch.
Murphy says "everyone knows how to tell stories", but as we get older "we get crushed a little, perhaps by someone telling us not to talk so much, and we build more and more armour.”
Good structure, strong characters and evocative language all help to make a good story, but Murphy says two other things are even more fundamental.
“I always come back to two words - inhabit and embody," she says. "When you inhabit the landscape of the story and embody some of the characters you will naturally come alive.
“When I’m working with scientists, they’re given permission to get excited and talk about things like light photons. Their faces light up and suddenly it’s totally engaging.
“Before, when they thought they had to academically report on what they had to say, I couldn’t maintain my interest.”
Claire Taylor, founder of the Oxfordshire-based Story Mill, helps leaders from a variety of businesses and organisations with their storytelling. She says authenticity is key.
“People believe there is a set way to be professional and they end up wearing a mask. When they are authentic, present and real in their storytelling, then people connect with them.”
Grange agrees: “The whole strength in the ability to tell stories and be believed is to be yourself; if the player can feel you as authentic. Players, like most of us, can smell a fake a mile off.”
Sharing personal experiences can be an effective way of doing this and also helps to foster an environment in which others tell their stories.
Last year Rotherham manager Paul Warne told us: “I'm happy to put myself out in front of the lads and I encourage them to do that too.”
At the start of 2018/19, he led a session in which players and staff spoke about what inspired them. "There were some sad stories,” Warne remembered.
The manager talked about his own father, who was seriously ill at the time and passed away last summer.
“I told them about my dad,” he said. “Now that I’m a dad myself I think about how much he’s helped me. When I played, he came to all my games, followed me everywhere, home and away. He was a massive influence and a massive support and I’ll always be grateful for that.”
During the 2018 World Cup in Russia, Grange encouraged both England’s staff and players to tell their personal stories - to each other and, if they were comfortable, to the wider world as well.
This was a major departure from the past, when the team had sometimes had a siege mentality and given away as little as possible to the media.
Storytelling helped the fans see their heroes as rounded, real people, maybe for the first time. The American Brene Brown has talked about how we can draw courage from vulnerability, and opening up about personal struggles proved a sign of strength, rather than a weakness, for the players as well.
Defender Danny Rose revealed how his uncle had killed himself and how his mother had been racially abused in the previous year, triggering depression. In a powerful first-person piece, Raheem Sterling told The Players' Tribune about how the murder of his father, when he was two-years-old, had affected him, and about how he hadn't known where he'd be staying at night when he was a young player at QPR's Academy.
“Admiring from afar is much less powerful than if that person has the vulnerability to stand up and talk about it,” Grange says. “And not with loads of gloss, but in a real, human way.
“If you want to be whole and seen as somebody who can be resilient to things like shame or pressure, then in some ways you’ve got to also be willing to be vulnerable.”