Author: Anita Krishnan

A system of stories: weaving stories into organisations

Have you ever wondered why it is that parents and caregivers spend so much time telling stories to children? They are teaching them values and morals but in a way that children can connect with: they feel the story and are able to internalise what they’re hearing rather than if they were simply told what to do and how to act.

To lead and influence people, you must have ethoslogos, and pathos. Ethos is character or credibility, which is necessary if you want people to believe what you say. Logos is about the logic or reason of your argument. Pathos is about emotion. A good story inherently has ethos, logos, and pathos. If one of those elements are missing, it either fails to take us along for the ride or leaves us feeling disengaged and unsatisfied. In our world today, we can observe the impact of populist narratives that are severed from ethos or logos, and instead fueled almost purely by pathos. Pathos is the engine room of action – but it must be values-based and checked by its cool headed counterparts to drive positive outcomes.

In the world of business, where logos has long reigned supreme, pathos and ethos are still under-utilised tools. It’s not uncommon in business, negotiations, law, and politics to hear the advice: “leave emotion out of it.”  Yet emotions can be leaders’ greatest asset. The range of human emotions is wide and deep, and effective leaders access emotion to connect with those they hope to inspire. They guide us in our decisions and choices; it’s through emotion that we learn what we care about– and through emotion that we are most often compelled to act. Consider that the root of the word emotionis the Latin mot, which means move. It’s no surprise that motivation shares this root. We are motivated by that which moves us to act. This is why, at The Storytellers, ‘move’ is an important word: core to both our purpose (to move people to do great things) and the value we bring to businesses in moving people to accelerate change and transform performance.

Pathos fosters motivation and builds connection between people and their leaders. But for what they say to mean anything at all, leaders must first establish their credibility through ethos. Positional power is no longer enough; we want leaders to show moral credibility and demonstrate their values through action. In this time of heated identity politics, the values we subscribe to as individuals and collectives is arguably more important for leaders to express than ever.

Ethos is also core to the way we engage with, and learn from, our leaders. Across cultures, children’s stories tend to culminate with a clearly articulated moral. As we get older, we outgrow the need for an explicit moral, yet we never stop drawing lessons and morals from the stories we hear. We gravitate towards characters who are complex and conflicted because we relate to them and learn from them: they feel human. It’s true that sometimes they make choices we wish they wouldn’t. But in a good story, we have a solid sense of who the person is, how they think, and what they feel. We can learn from both their successes and mistakes because we understand how they got there, what drove their choices, and how we might act in similar situations. Both “good” and “bad” choices teach us something – about the character and ourselves. We watch them wrestle with their values, and we learn about the type of people we could be and the choices we should make.

And expressing shared values is very good for business. Professor Paul Ingram’s work on values in business and leadership found that employees experience a huge motivational boost when their values are recognised – comparable to a 40% increase in salary. He also found that leaders who stay closely tied to their personal values seem more authentic and tend to make more ethical decisions.

As the way we work changes, values become more important than ever to sustain strong cultures. We’re witnessing the increasing gig economy, start-ups that grow from the ground up, open work spaces, remote teams and virtual environments. These days, organisations seem less like machines with a central control system, and more like organisms or ecosystems with interdependent parts working autonomously toward a common goal. Strong values and clear purpose give organisations the coherence and clarity to embrace decentralised working and flattening hierarchies without losing their collective identity. Finding a way to stay connected to this purpose and these values feels more important than ever before. And this is why stories are so important.

If we think of organisations as ecosystems, then storytelling should not only reside on the organisational level; it should permeate the whole system, from the level of the individual to the level of leadership. If people feed the story then the story feeds the people, and thus, a virtuous cycle is created. Inspiration both precedes action and comes from action. We often think of it preceding action: of course we must feel inspired before embarking on some new endeavor; interestingly though, the process continues feeding itself. Once we have taken action and seen results (whether successful or not), we are often re-inspired to continue on, to persevere, and to stay committed.

As a leader, it’s obvious that you need to know whether or not your people have done what they’re supposed to do; less obvious though, is that people also need to know whether or not things happened, as a way for them to mark the successes and failures of their teams and their work. Crafting an evolving organisational narrative is a way to continually maintain inspiration: incorporate stories of successes and challenges, and allow the story to be a living, breathing account of what is actually happening in the organisation.

For Individuals: When we take the time to connect with our own stories and understand our own why, we learn to identify and articulate the values that drive us. We constantly hear that the Millennial generation is one driven by purpose, but really, aren’t we all? To understand why we care about our work helps us make that emotional connection to it, which is both empowering and motivating. On the individual level, understanding our personal stories can lead to clarity of purpose and direction with an invigorated sense of passion for our work.

Within Teams: Storytelling within a team helps build solid relationships and creates a positive team culture. It may feel like a luxury (or a farce) to build in “story time” for teams, but it is definitely time well spent. The most effective teams I’ve worked on have been led by bosses who created conditions for us to connect not only as colleagues but as people. We scheduled 1:1 meetings in the beginning to share our stories, we had regular check-ins with the team, we celebrated challenges and victories together, and over time, our connection to ourselves, to each other, and to our work continued to develop. Real relationships help people invest in each other, creating the space for trust and healthy conflict, which ultimately leads to better, more creative ideas.

Crafting a shared narrative also allows teams to identify clear roles for working together; when you can see how your role fits with the roles of others within the bigger story, it creates a team culture of interdependence and accountability. Stories situate us between the past and the future: knowing who our teammates are and what they care about helps us see where we’ve come from as a group, and where we’re heading. When a collective narrative is built on the values and experiences of its members, it’s much easier for people to connect to it and feel a sense of ownership. You can respond and adapt more quickly to change because you don’t need to stop and ask about everything; you feel confident making autonomous decisions knowing they’re well aligned with the goals and mission of the organisation.

Across Teams: Between teams, storytelling can establish common ground and a shared language for effective collaboration. Stories promote understanding across difference; when cross-functional teams work together, articulating what they are doing and why through stories fosters clear communication and understanding. As teams continue working together, they are ultimately weaving together a larger, macro-level narrative, which is beneficial for the teams themselves, and also for the development of the organisation.

There is so much data being collected everywhere today, both quantitatively and qualitatively. Unfortunately, this data, which could be incredibly valuable for people all throughout organisations, isn’t shared as widely as it could be. It can be challenging to communicate the data in a way that feels meaningful and relatable to people who are not close to the research. So, tell a story. Stories are a great vehicle of data translation. The process of crafting a compelling story requires synthesis and understanding, and hearing the story then allows people to absorb and process the data more experientially. If they can feelthe impact of the data and care about it in some way, then the information is all the more useful.

Communicating high-level ideas in an accessible way shouldn’t be considered dumbing down, but rather meeting people where they are. And isn’t that really the point of collecting the data in the first place – to share it as widely as possible?

In his book “The Sense of Style,” Steven Pinker says academics tend to write in complex ways to maintain a level of status, when they could (and arguably should) be sharing their valuable research in a simpler, more accessible way. Stories communicate complex ideas in simple terms – a single moment in a story can offer deep lessons, identify clear tensions, carry subtle nuance, and teach a moral all at once. A cohesive narrative helps everyone stay on the same page, moving in the same direction.

In Leadership: Leadership is a capability not a position and it can be developed on any level. That said, however, there still exist certain positions that carry a certain level of power and influence, and leaders in these roles can benefit tremendously from the power of storytelling. When a leader seeks out the stories of those around them, it not only makes them more accessible, it also enhances their ability to strategize.

Growing up across continents, I’ve spent most of my life moving in and out of new cultural environments. In each new place, survival meant adaptation, and I learned firsthand the value of understanding context as a first priority. It’s impossible to know how something should be changed before you know what it’s about, who it affects, the context that shaped it, and how it plays out in practice. While this may seem intuitive, haven’t we all dealt with the outsider who comes in claiming they know what’s best for us?

When leaders listen to personal stories of the organisation, it serves two important functions. Leaders can see the larger macro-narrative of the organisation as a whole, and people feel that their voices are being heard and that they matter. The pulse of an organisation is in its stories. Leaders should look to stories as a source of strategic planning: What stories are you hearing? Which ones are most frequently repeated? By whom? What stories aren’tyou hearing that you would like to be hearing?

Stories and strategy are linked. A leader who really listens, noticing both what is present and absent in the stories they hear, has a better sense of the reality on the ground, and can identify the gaps of where and how they should strategize.

Leaders who share their own stories have the power to build more trusting, authentic relationships.Harvard Business School professor Amy Cuddy, who researches warmth and trust in leadership, says these two traits are incredibly valuable in good leadership. In the Harvard Business Review article “Connect, Then Lead,” Cuddy and her colleagues share that “…research suggests that the way to influence—and to lead—is to begin with warmth. Warmth is the conduit of influence: It facilitates trust and the communication and absorption of ideas.” They explain that building trust in organisations also “increases information sharing, openness, fluidity, and cooperation… and facilitates the exchange and acceptance of ideas.”

Though we often hear about the power of vulnerability, leaders still hesitate to show too much, fearing they may be seen as incompetent. But admitting that you see gaps and don’t yet know the answers is not a sign of weakness; rather, it shows trust and humility. It’s an invitation for others with expertise and knowledge to step forth and add to the existing narrative, serving to empower more people and gaining buy-in along the way.

When Jim Ryan, the former Dean of the Graduate School of Education, began his tenure at Harvard, he started out with a listening tour: for six months, he led with curiosity. He took time to listen and learn from people throughout the organisation and across various functions as to how things worked, who people were, and how he could best serve the organisation. He also opened up himself, honestly sharing parts of his own story, and offering open office hours for students, staff, and faculty to come meet him, ask questions, and share their own stories. It’s no surprise that Dean Ryan created huge and lasting impact during his tenure.

Storytelling of this kind also fuels innovation. Several years ago, Amy Edmundson, of Harvard Business School, coined the term psychological safety. “In psychologically safe environments”, she writes, “people believe that if they make a mistake others will not penalize or think less of them for it… will not resent or penalize them for asking for help, information or feedback.”

In a world that prizes continuous discovery, this kind of environment is essential; if people don’t feel a sense of psychological safety, they’re much less likely to take risks, make mistakes, or learn, and ultimately, the organisation suffers. If storytelling is a valued mechanism in an organisation, it can establish channels of knowledge-sharing where people can learn from the successes and failures of leaders and peers alike.

An organisational story locates the organisation on a trajectory, so it is always in motion, from somewhere to somewhere – it does not stay still: it’s not stagnant or in a vacuum. People can rally around a good story! And as organisations learn and grow, they must constantly evolve; if storytelling is woven throughout various levels of an organisation, it fosters engagement, consistency, and plasticity.

Storytelling also brings humor and lightness to serious work, which can enhance organisational culture and prevent burn-out. As humans, we depend on humor, creativity, and joy to keep us buoyant in challenging and uncertain times. Organisations are no different.



Cuddy, Amy, J.C., Kohut, Matthew, & Neffinger, J. (July-August, 2013). Connect, Then Lead. Harvard Business Review.

Edmundson, A. (2002). Managing the risk of learning: Psychological safety in work teams.In West, M. (Ed.). International Handbook of Organizational Teamwork, London: Blackwell.

Columbia Business School Executive Education, Ideas at Work. (October 4, 2018). Putting a Price on Principles.

Orchestrating with stories

Stories are a way to capture the relationships between things.” – Gregory Bateson

We live in complex times: organisations are constantly changing, teams are more diverse by the minute. And in our global world, people work across languages, cultures, and time zones on a daily basis. While this complexity certainly keeps things interesting, it can also be quite challenging.

In March, Deloitte released its report on Global Human Capital Trends[1], which surveyed over 11,000 business and HR leaders across the world. They found the “most pressing human capital issue” facing organisations today is the need for the C-Suite to break down their own siloes and collaborate. “To navigate today’s constantly changing business environment and address cross-disciplinary challenges, a company’s top leaders must act as one.”

Deloitte calls this model “the symphonic C-Suite”: the members work together as “a symphony of specialized experts playing in harmony— instead of a cacophony of experts who sound great alone, but not together.” There is a shift towards teams leading teams, and the goals of this symphonic C-Suite are: tapping opportunities, managing risks, and building relationships with stakeholders, ultimately leading to growth for organisations.

Storytelling is particularly valuable in these dynamic environments where many factors are constantly in flux. When dealing with complexity and many moving parts, it is important to see things in context rather than isolation. Stories capture the interconnected nature of things, allowing us to hold certain things constant as others are changing.

Returning to Deloitte’s model of the symphonic C-Suite, storytelling can be a key tool for leaders to communicate their own context and values to connect with their team, both in terms of who they are what they do. The goal of the symphonic C-Suite is to foster a collaborative team of cross-functional experts. Building effective cross-functional teams can be difficult: when we come from completely different areas, it can sometimes feel like we’re speaking entirely different languages.

Stories help bridge this divide by establishing a common language, helping us see that the different fields are not actually disparate languages, but rather different dialects of the same language. When we tell stories, we offer the listener space to process our experience through their own lens. We build connections and see overlaps that may otherwise have been missed.

If we hope to decentralise power structures, we need trust, a clear understanding of vision and purpose, and a combination of macro and micro views. With shared narratives, people can weave in and out of various roles, so long as the vision is always clear.

A professor of mine at university told me that years after taking her class, students wouldn’t remember much but they always remembered her stories.

And it’s true. We remember examples and stories because we connect with them emotionally. As an educator, I have seen how you can explain something to students for 30 minutes with no success, but give them one example and they’ve suddenly got it.

Stories give us something to latch on to and can be very effective teaching tools: they tell us what happened, how leaders acted, how people responded, and what the outcome was – in a clear and engaging way. They are examples of demonstrated action (or perhaps, inaction) that give us a chance to consider how we might behave if faced with a similar context or situation.

In an article in Harvard Business Review[2], Maura Thomas talks about the difference between intention and action. She quotes the famous psychologist William James, who said “your experience is what you attend to. And your experiences become your life.” Consider the shift several years ago to behavioral interviews over the old standard interview. Why do employers care about “a time when…” something actually happened rather than a hypothetical example of what someone might do in the future? Because we learn a lot from stories and behaviour: it’s demonstrated action in context.

They say it can get lonely at the top. Senior leaders can use storytelling to identify shared challenges and successes amongst themselves, helping to build genuine relationships and modeling for others to follow suit.

At The Storytellers, we view leadership as a capability rather than a position. So the question is: how can leaders empower others to actually take the reins and to develop their own leadership capabilities?

Most leaders are familiar with the case of the timid intern: the one who can’t make a decision on his own, can’t generate new tasks independently, and is constantly asking you what to do. Understandably, it’s hard to take the reins if you are not quite sure where to go.

Consider a jigsaw puzzle. People first identify task preferences, potentially based on their strengths (e.g., I’ll take the corners, you collect all the blue pieces). They can then work independently but must also keep an eye on what others are doing to identify points of overlap or connection. For any of this to work, however, the first and most crucial step is that everyone understands the goal: the picture on the puzzle box.

In organisations, the “picture on the box” is a shared narrative. It allows cross-functional teams to collaborate effectively; when teams and organisations craft a shared narrative, people feel a sense of belonging and ownership, and can see their own evolving role in the greater story. They can feel more comfortable taking on leadership if they know that they’re moving in the right direction and have a sense of the interrelatedness of the team and their work.

Stories also help us connect to our team members: understanding who they are and what they care about. As teams become more interdependent, they build trust and begin to feel accountable to one another. Strengths and weaknesses come to light and each person’s growth and development becomes a success for the team.

As a graduate student at Harvard, I worked with some colleagues to investigate the team dynamics of a high performing a cappella group. We observed weekly rehearsals and interviewed several members about what they felt made them so successful. The one thing we heard time and again was: we are all friendswe love hanging out with each other. It seemed their close relationships were not so much a by-product of being in the group, but rather, a pre-requisite to join; friendship was central to the group’s ongoing narrative and an integral part of how they on-boarded new members. The group agreed that the depth of their relationships was largely connected to the high quality of their musical performance.

The phrase “team-building” is thrown around so often these days that it has lost some of its meaning; it often ends up as a box to check or another PD exercise to endure. But the value of actually taking time to build relationships cannot be understated. It’s important to remember: strong relationships are the foundation of strong teams. And stories are the foundation of relationships. While data can give us information about things, stories also communicate the relationships between them. In fact, I like to think that if humanity could be measured, stories would be the unit.

Anita Krishnan
Associate of The Storytellers.


[1]Deloitte Global Human Capital Trends (2018).

[2]Thomas, Maura. (March 15, 2018). To Control Your Life, Control What You Pay Attention To. Harvard Business Review.


The value in Values

If you ask people about their values you might hear a slew of words: humility, loyalty, commitment. But what do these words really mean? When we speak of values abstractly, they risk becoming vague categories that mean different things to different people, or worse, carry little meaning at all.

For the past several years I’ve worked with Marshall Ganz at Harvard University coaching Public Narrative, which uses storytelling as a values-based leadership practice. Marshall wisely says, “Narrative is not talking “about” values; rather narrative embodies and communicates those values.” Stories ground our values in experience rather than abstraction, preserving their true meaning and conveying not only what they are but also where they came from.

We’re used to telling stories to other people; it is, after all, how humans have always interacted with each other. But what is often overlooked is the value in looking to our own stories to understand our purpose and motivation. We are often asked about what we do, what we’ve done, and what we plan to do.

Less often are we asked why. Why did we choose the path we’re on in the first place and what choices and events in our life led us there? What calls us to our work and what keeps us committed to it?

For me, delving into my own story helped me see connective threads in my life that years of reflection had missed. I remember sharing three disparate stories – or so I thought: one about growing up moving around (America, Australia, Singapore), one about teaching English to immigrants in New York, and a third about serving in the Peace Corps in Paraguay.

My narrative coach listened, probed with curious questions, then loosely re-capped my stories back-to-back. I suddenly saw it: the value that connected them all. My transient upbringing had often left me feeling like an outsider. When my family moved to Singapore, I was a seven-year-old American of Indian descent with a raging Australian accent.

I grew to value a sense of belonging. It drove me to want to create spaces for others to feel connected across difference, which I saw reflected in my other two stories. Identifying this core value that had been motivating me for years was a powerful realization. It changed the way I talked about my work, making it easier for me to explain why it was important and to better connect to people in the process. It grounded me as both a person and a leader.

I became a teaching fellow and coach of Public Narrative because I wanted to pass it on – to help others connect with their own stories and values as I had. I’ve worked with a range of diverse people from university students to non-profit leaders, and from grassroots organizers to corporate executives. As a coach, I ask guided questions to help people explain what calls them to leadership: to identify key choice points, challenges, and hope, and to share it through the art of storytelling.

But when asked why they chose to do what they do, people often say, “I just fell into this.”

And it’s true, we sometimes fall into things based on circumstance or sheer chance. But the question then remains: so why did you choose to stay?

This usually unearths a different kind of answer and a change in perspective. To “fall into” something is passive, like we didn’t have much say in the matter. Explaining why we “chose” to stay, on the other hand, helps people reclaim their sense of agency, leaving them feeling empowered by their own stories and the values that drive them. Leonardo Da Vinci aptly said: “…people of accomplishment rarely sat back and let things happen to them. They went out and happened to things.”

Across all contexts, I’ve found that one thing always holds true: when a person can identify and narrate the experiences that shaped their values, they feel more grounded, inspired with purpose, and better able to connect with others on a human level.

One such person I worked with was an executive fundraiser for an arts organization who had been working effectively at her job for over 10 years. She came into our workshop skeptical, wondering why she was wasting her valuable time on a narrative workshop; she was a seasoned writer who already understood the importance of storytelling, especially in fundraising. But as the day went on and we continued coaching her, she opened up and was surprised by how deeply the process impacted her.

This woman told us about her father – her absolute hero in the world – who had instilled in her a love for music from an early age, and who had passed away a few years before. He was a very successful accountant and business owner, but at the end of his life, he told her that if he could do it all again, he would have been a musician. She remembered how when he was healing after each of his many surgeries, he’d blast symphony music or his favorite French operas from his stereo while laying back in his leather recliner, eyes closed, waving a pen around as his conducting baton.

As she shared these stories, she took us on a journey, helping us understand and connect with her as a person – but she was also journeying herself. She realized how closely her passion for art and music was tied to her love for her father. More importantly, she realized her work of fundraising for the arts was actually her way of honoring her dad.

This woman, who had spent most of her career writing about and celebrating the stories of others, left the workshop with a deeper understanding of how her own story impacted her life’s work.

Another example comes from a man who planned to enter politics. His reasons were simple: he grew up watching the news and politics and always wanted to become a politician. He spoke about his goals rather matter-of-factly and with little personal connection. In short, his political aspirations lacked a human element. As I began coaching him, he skirted my questions about the challenges he’d faced and the times he’d felt vulnerable; he glossed over it all saying everything was fine — it had always been fine.

It took a few weeks (and a great deal of patience on both our ends) before he finally opened up and shared his painful stories of being bullied and feeling excluded as a kid. He had been smaller than his peers and often felt overlooked, like his voice wasn’t being heard.

At first, he found little connection between these childhood stories and his drive for politics. But he eventually realized he’d always wanted to be a politician for the people – not just to be in politics, but to give voice to those who weren’t being heard. This realization dramatically changed the way he spoke about his goals: his focus shifted from “becoming a politician” to the people he hoped to serve, and onto his clear value of using power to give voice to those without. It brought him down to earth in a way, grounding his leadership in his values and helping him communicate that connection to other people through stories.

I have seen so many examples of both personal and professional transformations through this work of storytelling. It is really the point of the business. Stories help us put the value back in our values. There is always something magical in the moment someone discovers their own why; but even more exciting is how it will change their approach to their work, their teams, their leadership, and their life.

*These stories were shared with the permission of the participants. 

Anita Krishnan
Associate of The Storytellers.