Leading with Inspiration

Leadership coach Kevin Cashman shows how stories can get leaders from just transmitting information to emotionally moving people.

In his book, "Leadership from the Inside Out: Becoming a Leader in Life," Senior Client Partner Kevin Cashman writes about how you have to grow yourself as a person in order to grow yourself as a leader. In this excerpt, Cashman explains how to use stories to inspire action. 


Stories elevate the mind and the heart to go beyond what is, to mobilize us and others to reach new possibilities. Annette Simmons, group process consultant, understood this dynamic when she wrote, “People do not want information. They are up to their eyeballs in information. They want faith—faith in you, your goals, your success, in the story you tell.” Science has demonstrated that stories, especially stories that sustain our attention with a narrative arc and some tension, have the unique force to move us intellectually and emotionally at the same time.

In “Why Your Brain Loves Good Storytelling,” Harvard Business Review, scientist Paul Zak explains that his lab discovered more than a decade ago that the neurochemical oxytocin is necessary for humans to feel safe. Zak says, “It does this by enhancing a sense of empathy.” Our brain produces more of it each time we experience kindness and trust.

More recently Zak’s lab explored how to tap into oxytocin in people’s brains to motivate then to engage in cooperative behaviors. Researchers did this by testing people’s blood to measure their oxytocin levels before and after they watched narrative videos. They found that character-driven stories produced most oxytocin, and more oxytocin in the blood was a predictor of how willing people were to help others, for example, by donating to a charity linked to a story they saw. Zak, who specializes in neuroeconomy, concludes that we can leverage stories to engage employees to feel empathy for customer struggles and pleasure at the role they play in resolutions. His research demonstrates that we are attracted to stories in which people overcome challenges and discover new capabilities, like the archetypal Hero’s Journey described by Joseph Campbell.

Zak also suggests that organizations tell their own founding story more often to connect people to what he called “transcendent purpose”—to engage people with the original passion behind the enterprise. He writes: “These are the stories that, repeated over and over, stay core to the organization’s DNA. They provide guidance for daily decision-making as well as the motivation that comes with the conviction that the organization’s work must go on, and needs everyone’s full engagement to make a difference in people’s lives.”

I witnessed this principle while in Europe delivering a keynote with Liam Condon, CEO of Bayer Crop Science, and his top 100 leaders. During this program, Liam revealed stories that aligned and amplified the purpose-driven aspiration of Bayer: “Science for a Better Life.” The authenticity and relevance of Liam’s stories palpably energized the entire room. It was a visible demonstration that stories about purpose trigger oxytocin-induced inspiration.

A Tale of Two CEOs

A while ago, I was working with two CEOs, who were running two different global enterprises. One had honed his skills as an inspiring leader, and the other one was a more analytical, “only the facts” person. Each was about to roll out his refreshed set of organizational values to support the cultural and leadership shifts needed to achieve his strategic goals.

The fact-oriented leader went to the stage and stood before 3,000 associates hopeful to hear a new agenda. They were primed for something fresh and engaging. The CEO was not ready to satisfy their hopes and longings. Thinking that his job was merely to inform, he dryly listed the five critical values with precision: Value 1, Value 2, Value 3, Value 4, Value 5, all supported by a well-crafted PowerPoint projected on a screen behind him. The group was stunned. A resistant quiet blanketed the room. People moved back from the edges of their seats and leaned into their seatbacks with a disappointed, resigned thud. Doubt filled the room. Where excitement, energy, and engagement should have drawn everyone to the leader and to each other, instead there was disconnection and disillusionment. The underlying buzz was unmistakable. Is this all you have? These sound just like the empty values at my last soulless company! Do I really want to attach my career and creative energies to this leader…to this organization?

Sensing the flat response, the CEO tried to rally. “Okay. Let me list these values again. And again he went through them, one at a time, with analytical precision. As you can imagine not even a glimmer of inspiration or engagement remained. Instead, cynicism and sarcasm took root, securing a hopeless and draining feeling within most people present. (Likely, many LinkedIn profiles were updated that evening.)

The other CEO, the one with a more developed talent for touching people’s hearts with stories took a different approach. Yes, he had five core values, too, which he listed for everyone with the help of a PowerPoint behind him. And yes, some of the values were identical to our other CEO’s values. However, instead of reading them off as a list, he took his time, told an authentic, real-life story for each one. As he did, the PowerPoint melted into the background, and each of the core values came to life.

To present the first value, he told a moving story of a health crisis experienced by his teenage son and how the trauma of this tough journey made the value real for him. For the second value, he shared the story of a failure that he had faced early in his career and how the experience still keeps him humble, compassionate, and open to learning. He illustrated the third value by sharing a story of a mentor-boss who took a chance on him before he was really ready for a role and its challenges, reminding him that we nee to take chances on people and see their potential before they do.

Imagine this audience perched on the edge of their chairs, absorbed in the authenticity and relevance of the CEO’s inspired messages. Not only did they hear the CEO and feel the realness of the values presented, but the stories also awakened the audience’s own. The CEO had tapped into the collective brain and heart of the organization, and the connection resonated in the room. Oxytocin was pumping. Deep authenticity intersected with profound relevance and brought shared inspiration through the power of stories.  Patrick Thomas, CEO of Covestro, the highly successful IPO spin-off of Bayer, is a true believer in the power of stories. Patrick recently shared, “Stories have the unique power to engage the hearts and minds of individuals and to move them as a collective body from the mundane to the meaningful.” Stories move us from intellectually transmitting information to emotionally inspiring transcendence.