Storytelling has proven to be the most influential form of communication and a skill that is central to leadership effectiveness. Stories can inspire people far more than a daze-inducing PowerPoint presentation or a set of graphs or statistics. They move people to feel and they can move people to act. Effective storytelling has the power to galvanise people where, in other circumstances, they may be resistant to change.
So, if storytelling is such a powerful business tool and an agent for change, why are more business students not exposed to it as part of an MBA? Some leading business schools around the world are starting to incorporate storytelling as an elective, as the evidence continues to grow that narrative is a key tool for effective leadership and can play a role in helping organisations through change and transformation. Wits Business School (WBS) has long included storytelling in its MBA curriculum, thanks to the creative brain of Part-Time Lecturer in Organisational Development and Design, Peter Christie. When he introduced his elective ‘Every Leader a Storyteller’ at WBS in 1998—it was the first such MBA course of its kind in the world.
Christie, better known in his professional life as ‘Big Chief Talking Bull’, worked the corporate circuit for five years after graduating with a Masters in Industrial Psychology. He then decided to strike out on his own as a Change Management Specialist and it wasn’t long before he identified a clear need in the market for his eclectic mix of talent and experience in the art of storytelling.“I recognised that within businesses, communication was a perennial problem. It was the uppermost problem in organisational life. Being a natural-born storyteller and a believer in the power of stories, I felt that there might be a niche for this work in organisations,” he says.
The concept took off quickly, Christie recalls, spurred on by a presentation hosted by WBS where international management theorist Ronnie Lessem argued for the centrality of storytelling as a universal leadership competency. Christie then went on to edit, along with Lessem and Lovemore Mbigi, the best-selling ‘African Management: Philosophies, Concepts and Applications’ in 1993, and has since authored five more books. Why the name ‘Big Chief Talking Bull’? As a small boy, Christie loved Western movies. His childhood hero was the shamanic leader Big Chief Sitting Bull, who led his followers to victory over General Custer and the US army at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. When asked what he wanted to be one day, the young Peter Christie would say, “Big Chief Sitting Bull”. “Because I was such a chatterbox and loved telling stories, my father started referring to me as ‘Big Chief Talking Bull’, and the name stuck!”As an adult, Christie turned his love and talent for stories into a career, establishing a successful consultancy, aptly called ‘Not the Bored Room’, that teaches business people how to unlock their storytelling potential in order to become better, more influential leaders.
“I realised that great business leaders very often communicate through the use of stories to inspire others. The power of stories lies in the fact that people remember stories so much better than conceptual models or presentations. Great stories stay with us, whether in movies we’ve seen or books we’ve read. There is no doubt that storytelling is the most powerful form of communication, and there are numerous empirical studies that prove this. Besides, who doesn’t enjoy a good story? I’ve worked in some of the toughest boardrooms around and let me tell you, all people love stories. Stories reach people on a different level—they bypass people’s intellects and go straight to their hearts. They engage their emotions. The corporate world can be a cold place. Storytelling is a way to enliven it,” he says.Thus, Christie’s storytelling sessions can be a breath of fresh air in an otherwise fusty corporate environment and his clients often find that storytelling engages them far more than an instructional approach. “Very often, when I have attended these types of [leadership development] programmes in the past, I have lost interest by the second day,” says William Wilson, a Financial Manager at FirstRand. “Storytelling has a unique way of getting the message across in such a lively and engaging way, and illustrating a subject rather than instructing on it. At WBS, Christie’s classrooms are equally lively places: current part-time MBA student, Jaco Taute, says of the elective: “It is by far the most I’ve learnt from any course on the MBA, and the most fun I’ve had.”
Every Leader a Storyteller’ continues to be one of the most popular electives on the WBS MBA programme, running between three to five times a year. The course gives students an opportunity to explore new and creative ways of being.”I once read that, although one’s comfort zone may seem like a beautiful place, nothing ever grows there,” says past WBS student Brad Bennett. “The authenticity and energy that Peter brought to the classroom made it easy to move beyond my comfort zone. The storytelling elective was, beyond a shadow of a doubt, one of the highlights of doing my MBA.”Not everyone is a born storyteller, and Christie is the first to acknowledge that. However, he believes strongly that humans are naturally a narrative species.“It’s just a question of building that skill,” he says. “And storytelling is a skill worth developing because it is incredibly powerful for a leader to hold a large and rapt audience in the palm of their hand.”