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The Power of Storytelling for Leaders and Leadership Development

  • Published
  • By John Hinck, Steve Davis, Sara Kitsch, Jason Womack, and Robert Hinck

What is it about stories that makes us laugh, cry, think, and connect? How is storytelling connected to leadership? Can the art and process of storytelling itself serve as a developmental tool for individual leaders? The impact of stories and storytelling on students and instructors needs to be better understood, particularly how stories cause shifts in cognitive, affective, and behavioral domains. In pursuit of this, we studied data accrued from twenty-six iterations of a leader development course over a two-year span, including analyzing over 1,600 end-of-course surveys and conducting interviews with seventeen of the course instructors. Our findings revealed that stories had a range of effects and affects on students and instructors. Notably, stories 1) allowed deeper cognitive learning, 2) provided models of authenticity and vulnerability that encouraged vulnerability mirroring, 3) helped instructors regain recoverable loss through the telling of their stories, and 4) anchored learning in the affective zone for students upon which further learning and group cohesion occurred. The stories shared by instructors in week one of a two-week course set an example for students to emulate when they developed and told their own stories at the end of week one. Finally, students and instructors reported that student stories reflected intentionality, authenticity, trust, unique leadership qualities, and vulnerability—showcasing how instructors set the example in facilitating skill transfer which students followed. When used as a process of understanding how a leader develops and for improving leadership development, stories can have a powerful impact that positively influences participants’ head, heart, and hands—or cognitive, affective, and behavioral learning domains. This article will help unravel the effect and affect of storytelling for developing leaders.


Based on findings from a publication on “Improving the Effectiveness of Air Force Squadron Commanders”, the Chief of Staff of the U.S. Air Force (USAF) directed the USAF to create a leader development course aimed at improving human domain skills and revitalizing USAF squadrons.[1] The Leader Development Course for Squadron Command (LDC) was developed to answer the call. LDC is an eight-day course that trains military and civilian leaders to effectively lead USAF people and organizations with a focus on soft skills. LDC is taught by active duty, recently graduated squadron commanders who are teamed with senior enlisted leaders and academically trained civilian subject matter experts to teach in a mixed large and small group setting. During every two-week LDC, the military instructors share stories, called squadron leader perspectives, from their time in leadership roles and command of military organizations. The leader perspectives consistently receive high marks and have been rated in the top three areas by students and instructors alike. Like many organizations or courses, LDC has aptly captured the high marks and rankings of the leader perspectives or stories. Yet, no one has studied the effect (cognitive and behavioral power) and affect (emotional power) of the stories on both instructors (teller of the stories) and students (receiver of stories who then develop and tell their own story). Two questions guided our work:

●      What is the effect of storytelling on leaders?

●      What is the affect of storytelling on leaders?

Storytelling and Leadership Development

The process of exploring and developing one’s identity as a leader starts with a comparison of oneself to one’s cognitive schema of leadership and that of others and can be achieved through sensemaking and storytelling, where someone envisions themself as a leader.[2] Understanding the moments in our lives that have made us the leader we are today is a leadership development process that increases motivation to lead and allows us to “see ourselves” in a developmental state with further potential.[3] Education and training courses should foster leader development through storytelling that signals authenticity, supports inclusion, vulnerability mirroring, and belonging, and increases trust. “Such actions can strengthen the social fabric of organizations, improve organizational members’ relationships, and promote greater cognitive understanding and trust, enabling greater management of conflict”.[4] LDC students learn those skills to instill greater trust and confidence in classroom environments, particularly from shared authority practices and storytelling with instructor modeling of vulnerability behaviors leading to greater student participation, deeper cognitive learning, vulnerability mirroring, and leadership growth. This produces measurable attitudinal change and behavioral practices expressed by leaders in how they intend to lead beyond the classroom.[5] In the context of leadership, vulnerability has been defined both as “consciously choosing NOT to hide your emotions or desires from others” and “not [about] winning or losing; it’s having the courage to show up and be seen even though we cannot control the outcome”.[6] Authentic stories and storytelling model and enact vulnerability, and understanding the effect and affect of stories on leaders is at the heart of this article. 


Storytelling as a Reflective Practice for Leaders

Leaders can use stories to convey lessons they have learned, connect with their audiences, and gain insight into themselves as leaders. Storytelling allows leaders to communicate their vision and values in ways that resonate with their audience.[7] But more than just conveying an informational message to a target audience, leaders can use the process of exploring their past to identify their leadership stories and gain insights into their leadership styles and expectations.[8] Doing so, they can foster personal growth, enhancing their ability to connect with and inspire their teams.[9] Building and telling stories can be a reflective process that enhances one’s leadership potential.

It is important that leaders use the story appropriately. Storytelling should not be used to manipulate or deceive others but rather to inspire and connect.[10] While some leaders efficiently use story to inspire and even encourage, leaders should be mindful of the ethical implications of the stories they tell and the way they tell them, as they can influence how listeners respond.[11] To use storytelling effectively, leaders should consider the audience and context of their message.

Using story to practice reflection gives leaders the reason and rigor to pause and review their experiences. By constructing narratives about their own leadership journey leaders can analyze their actions, decisions, and the outcomes that followed.[12] This self-assessment allows leaders to identify areas of improvement, acknowledge their strengths, and recognize how their values and beliefs influence their leadership style.[13] Ultimately, different stories will resonate with different audiences, and leaders should tailor their messages accordingly.[14] Used appropriately, building stories and storytelling can be a powerful reflective practice for leaders that can inspire and inform audiences.[15] By considering the audience and context of their message, leaders can use storytelling to connect with others, gain insight into their own experiences, and enhance their leadership effectiveness.

Storytelling as a Communicative Practice for Leaders

Storytelling serves as a critical tool for organizational sensemaking. Organizations are best understood not as fixed entities but organizing processes built around multilayered interactions with others and our environments.[16]How we interact with others and the stories we tell about our interactions define our collective values and reasons for communal being. Understood as a communicative practice, leadership influences collective behavior through meaning management in service toward a collective task or goal.[17]

The power of organizational storytelling makes narrative leadership a highly valued skill. Leaders tell stories to evoke leadership qualities by motivating, inspiring, and influencing others in addition to defusing conflict and constructing trust.[18] Common leadership story genres are those addressing questions like, “why am I here,” “I know what you are thinking,” and “who am I,” in addition to those offering organizational “vision”, illustrating “value-in-action”, and “teaching” stories.[19]

Leaders in formal positions are not the only source of organizational meaning making. The stories presented and circulated by all members of an organization come to form an organization’s culture. Narrative leadership is thus dependent upon the ability to elicit and align communal storytelling among leaders and followers, with leaders using stories to build trust and empowerment with followers as well as self-reflectively as a means for self-development.[20]

Our Findings on Key Effects and Affects

Our initial data analysis indicates promising results, and their implications show the substantial contributions of the study for the scholarly field, practitioner field, and the classrooms of professional military education and higher education—clear and empirical understanding of how stories effect and affect students and instructors. Seven themes emerged related to the effect and affect of storytelling for students and instructors.

●      #1. Effect 1 (students) – The instructor’s story puts the follow-on content into context of leadership and command.

●      #2. Effect 2 (students and instructors) – Instructor stories provide an avenue of how to talk about the experience (then and there) and talk because of the story by connecting to what is being processed in the moment (here and now).

●      #3. Effect 3 (students and instructors) – Instructor stories contribute to deeper cognitive learning by connecting to the follow-on content and aiding in achieving the intended learning outcomes.

●      #4. Affect 1 (students and instructors) – The story allows the instructor to be authentic and vulnerable and trust the group, which provides a model of vulnerability for students to emulate (vulnerability mirroring).

●      #5. Affect 2 (instructors) – Instructors relive stories about emotional experiences and share them with the group, helping to gain recoverable loss of emotions suppressed in years past.

●      #6. Affect 3 (students and instructors) – Stories anchor learning in the affective zone and provide a concrete experience upon which further learning and group cohesion can occur.

●      #7. Affect and Effect 1 (students and instructors) – The eight stories shared by instructors in week one (Days 1-4) set an example for students to emulate when they developed and told their own stories on Day 4 of the course; students and instructors reported student stories reflected the intentionality, authenticity, trust, unique leadership qualities, and vulnerability—showcasing how instructors set the example in facilitating skill transfer.


As a tool for leader development, storytelling can profoundly impact both students and instructors. Our exploration of storytelling at LDC illustrates how incorporating storytelling in the curriculum, both as stories shared (by instructors) and stories developed (by students) has the potential to hone reflective practice and leader communication. Our analysis highlights that for students, storytelling provides a path to deeper learning, moving conversation from “then and there” to “here and now,” and promotes vulnerability. These outcomes were viewed in relation to improved trust and cohesion in the learning environment. For instructors, storytelling offered an avenue to revisit their own narratives and transfer vulnerability by sharing first. Finally, as a tool for leader development, storytelling practices, in this instance, achieved outcomes in the cognitive, affective, and behavioral learning domains, indicating the importance of future studies on the dynamic between instructor-storytellers and student-story developers. These findings point toward the importance of integrating storytelling into other leader and leadership development courses as a core leadership competency as well as a fundamental andragogical practice.


Dr. John M. Hinck
Dr. Hinck is serving as an Assistant Professor of Leadership at Air University with the Leadership & Innovation Institute (Air War College). A former Apache Longbow pilot and Army Colonel with more than 22 years of service as a combat leader, two-time battalion commander, Dr. Hinck has several publications with recent ones on “A Three-Part Leadership Framework for the Cyber Community: A Model of Trust, Risk, and Influence” and the strategic competition involving the Indo-Pacific region.

Dr. Steven B. Davis
Dr. Davis is an Assistant Professor of Leadership at the Leadership and Innovation Institute, Air War College. He is a primary instructor for the Leader Development Course, where he also serves as Director of Faculty Development and Director of Curriculum. He also teaches a variety of courses on leadership at Air War College, Air Command and Staff College, and in invited lectures and seminars around Air University and the Air Force. He has researched and published on a variety of topics related to leader development, educational course design, advanced pedagogy/andragogy, methods of teaching and learning, and faculty development.

Dr. Robert S. Hinck
Dr. Hinck is an Associate Professor of Leadership and Deputy Director of Research at Air War College’s Leadership and Innovation Institute (LII). He also serves as Deputy Director of AU’s Quality Enhancement Plan, responsible for developing and assessing curriculum on ethical leadership across the continuum of learning. He received his PhD in Communication Studies from Texas A&M University and is lead author of two books, the most recent entitled: “The Future of Global Competition: Ontological Security Narratives in Chinese, Russian, Venezuelan, and Iranian Media.” His teaching and research focuses on organizational communication and leadership, international relations and strategic narratives, and US-China relations.

Dr. Sara R. Kitsch
Dr. Sara R. Kitsch is an Assistant Professor of Leadership at Air War College’s Leadership and Innovation Institute. Sara is a primary instructor and the co-director of Faculty Development for the Eaker Center’s Leader Development Course for Squadron Command and serves as a committee member on AU’s Quality Enhancement Plan, which creates and evaluates curriculum on ethical leadership. Sara teaches courses at Air War College and Air Command and Staff Colleges on topics related to leader development, visual rhetoric, and empathy. She is author of multiple academic articles, book chapters, and research reports, with her research having won awards at National Conventions.


[1.] John Ausink, Miriam Matthews, Raymond E. Conley, and Nelson Lim, “Improving the Effectiveness of Air Force Squadron Commanders: Assessing Squadron Commander Responsibilities, Preparation, and Resources,” (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2018), 45–50,

[2.] Scott DeRue, Susan J. Ashford, and Natalie C. Cotton, “Assuming the Mantle: Unpacking the Process by which Individuals Internalize a Leader Identity,” in Laura M. Roberts and Jane E. Dutton, eds., Exploring Positive Identities and Organizations: Building a Theoretical and Research Foundation (New York: Taylor & Francis, 2009), 213–232; Shamir and Galit Eilam, “What’s your Story? A Life-Stories Approach to Authentic Leadership Development,” Leadership Quarterly 16, No.3 (2005): 395-417; Deborah Ancona, “Sensemaking: Framing and Acting in the Unknown,” in The Handbook for Teaching Leadership: Knowing, Doing, and Being (Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications, 2009), 3–21.

[3.] For more, see: David V. Day, Michelle Harrison, and Stanley Halpin, An Integrative Approach to Leader Development: Connecting Adult Development, Identity, and Expertise (New York: Routledge, 2009) and Ronit Kark and Dina van Dijk, “Motivation to Lead, Motivation to Follow: The Role of Self-Regulatory Focus in Leadership Processes,” The Academy of Management Review 32, No. 2 (2007): 500–528.

[4.] John M. Hinck and Robert S. Hinck, “Strength Through Vulnerability: The Role of Trust Formation in Leader Development Programs,” Journal of Military Conflict Transformation (under review, 2023): 18.

[5.] Ibid.18.

[6.] Mark Manson, “Vulnerability: The Key to Better Relationships,” online, 2019, (accessed May 25, 2023) and Brené Brown, (2017) Rising Strong: How the Ability to Reset Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead, (New York: Random House, 2017), 4.

[7.] Lee. G. Bolman and Terrence E. Deal, Reframing Organizations: Artistry, Choice, and Leadership (Jossey-Bass (New York: Jossey Bass, 2017), 355.

[8.] Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence, 10th ed. (New York: Bantam Dell, 2007), 172; Brené Brown, Dare to Lead: Brave Work. Tough Conversations. Whole Hearts (New York: Random House, 2018), 267.

[9.] Dan P. McAdams, The Redemptive Self: Stories Americans Live By (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 100.

[10] Stephen Denning, The Secret Language of Leadership (New York: Jossey-Bass, 2007), 32.

[11] Vanessa Boris, “What Makes Storytelling So Effective for Learning?,” Leading the Way: Ideas and Insights from Harvard Business Publishing Corporate Learning, online, December 20, 2017, (accessed May 25, 2023); Carmine Gallo, “Storytelling to Inspire, Educate, and Engage,” American Journal of Health Promotion 33, No. 3 (2019): 471.

[12.] Paul Zak, “Why Your Brain Loves Good Storytelling,” Harvard Business Review, online, October 28, 2014, (accessed May 25, 2023); Gallo, “Storytelling to Inspire,” 471.

[13.] Carol Dweck, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success (New York: Ballantine Books, 2016), 81

[14.] Paul Smith, The 10 Stories Great Leaders Tell (Naperville, IL: Simple Truths, 2019), 2.

[15.] Laurie Lewis, Organizational Change: Creating Change Through Strategic Communication (New Jersey: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011), 237.

[16.] For more, see: Karl E. Weick, Sensemaking in Organizations (Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE, 1995).

[17.] Vivian M.J. Robinson, “Embedding Leadership in Task Performance,” in Kam-cheung Wong and Colin W. Evers, eds., Leadership for Quality Schooling (London: Routledge/Falmer, 2001), 90–102.

[18.] Tommi Auvinen, Iiris Aaltio, and Kirsimarja Blomqvist, “Constructing Leadership by Storytelling: The Meaning of Trust and Narratives,” Leadership & Organization Development Journal 34, No. 6 (2013): 496-514.

[19.] Grafton Whyte and Selwyn Classen, “Using Storytelling to Elicit Tacit Knowledge from SMEs,” Journal of Knowledge Management 16, No. 6 (2012): 950-962.

[20.] Auvinen, Aaltio, and Blomqvist, “Constructing Leadership.”

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