On Leadership: The Power of a Story




Storytelling reveals meaning without committing the error of defining it.

~ Hannah Arendt

Storytelling is a very old human skill that gives us an evolutionary advantage. If you can tell young people how you kill an emu, acted out in song or dance, or that Uncle George was eaten by a croc over there, don’t go there to swim, then those young people don’t have to find out by trial and error.

~ Margaret Atwood

“The nurse was working in the neonatal intensive-care unit … She’d been watching one baby in particular for several hours … His color, a key indicator of potential problems, had been fluctuating-wavering between a healthy shade of pink and a duller, more troublesome hue. Suddenly, within a matter of seconds, the baby turned a deep blue-black. The nurse’s stomach fell. Others in the ICU yelled for an X-ray technician and a doctor.

The gathering medical team was operating on the assumption that the baby’s lung had collapsed – a common problem for babies on ventilators. The team prepared for the typical response to a collapsed lung, which involves piercing the chest and inserting a tube to suck the air from around the collapsed lung, allowing it to re-inflate.

But the nurse thought it was a heart problem. As soon as she saw the baby’s color-that awful blue-black-she suspected a pneumopericardium, a condition in which air fills the sac surrounding the heart, pressing inward and preventing the heart from beating. The nurse was terrified, because the last time she witnessed a pneumopericardium the baby died before the problem could even be diagnosed.

The nurse tried to stop the frantic preparations to treat the lung. “It’s the heart!” she said. But in response, the other medical personnel pointed to the heart monitor, which showed that the baby’s heart was fine; his heart rate was bouncing along steadily, at the newborn rate of 130 beats per minute. The nurse, still insistent, pushed their hands away and screamed for quiet as she lowered a stethoscope to check for a heartbeat.

There was no sound-the heart was not beating.

She started doing compressions on the baby’s chest. The chief neonatologist burst into the room and the nurse slapped a syringe in his hand. “It’s pneumopericardium,” she said. “Stick the heart.” The neonatologist guided the syringe into the heart and slowly released the air that had been strangling the baby’s heart. The baby’s life was saved. His color slowly returned to normal.

Later, the group realized why the heart monitor misled them. It is designed to measure electrical activity, not actual heartbeats. The baby’s heart nerves were firing-telling the heart to beat at the appropriate rate-but the air in the sac around the heart prevented the heart from actually beating.”

Did that story grab your heart?  Were you engaged into what was happening to the baby and the emotions of the nurse?  That is what happened to me when I first heard this story in Dan and Chip Heath’s book, Made to Stick.  

The Heath brothers use this example to demonstrate how stories effectively teach principles and concepts. We all love stories.  The popularity of movies, television, and books all confirm this.  A well crafted story creates a mental schema where the listener can project themselves into the story scenario, simulating the actual experience of the characters.  We all learn best through our own experience.  When we don’t have the opportunity to experience a life lesson we can be projected into experiential learning through the power of a story.

What are some of the principles we learn in the story above?  Here are a few that I see:

  1. Purpose and determination should trump peer pressure.  The nurse goes against the peer pressure in the room because the risk of being wrong is too great – the baby could die.  She is focused more on the greater purpose of the work to save lives than on worrying about the politics of the situation.  Principle taught: “Remember our “why” is the overriding decision driver.”
  2. Experience trumps technology.  Even with great technology we can forget the power of human assessment and gut instinct.  We can rely too much on our tools and forget that our experience and wisdom still is superior in many respects.  Principle taught: “Don’t disregard human experience.”
  3. Trusted team trumps personal ego.  The nurse was challenging many highly trained medical experts and giving direction to doctors.  The culture of the ICU and team must have been developed where it was okay to do that.  Principle taught: “Be humble and consider all opinions.”

I’m sure you can see other principles that I haven’t listed.  I’m only sharing a few to emphasize the power of teaching through stories.

In your professional and personal development  I encourage you to learn how to tell stories.  How?  Practice by reading them and telling them – maybe to your children at night.  Stories draw in the listener to your world and mental schema.  It’s a powerful axiom leadership skill.

Choose to master storytelling.  Choose greatness.



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