How Leaders Use Stories to Help Achieve Superior Performance

During World War II, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt traveled to Seattle, Wash., to meet with 18,000 aircraft workers at Boeing Corporation.FDR brought with him a young airplane pilot named Hewitt Wheless from Texas.

The pilot had escaped death, thanks to the resilience of the bullet-riddled B-17 plane he flew out of harm’s way. His plane had been built at that very Boeing plant.

Do you think seeing and hearing that young pilot thank them for saving his life connected them to a common cause? You bet it did.

Although the work required for America to catch up to the output of the Nazi military-industrial complex was daunting, Americans rose to the challenge by persevering through long, hard hours of menial factory work.

FDR’s visits helped transform welders and riveters into freedom fighters. From 1941 until 1945 American aircraft companies out-produced the Nazis three to one and built nearly 300,000 airplanes.

People remember stories. Effective leaders like FDR identify and communicate stories to inspire people. Here are three key points to consider when using stories to enthuse, engage and energize people.

1. Connect People with Your Vision

Identify and tell stories about the people your organization serves. This keeps people focused on the importance of your vision. Many healthcare organizations do this by sharing the stories of how their work helped former patients and their families. To see examples, check out the videos of patient stories on New York-Presbyterian Hospital’s website at The stories you’ll see don't always have happy endings but they are very effective at communicating the importance of their work.

2. Connect People with Your Leadership Values

Leaders should be open about telling their own stories to connect people with their leadership values.

Once when I was teaching a leadership workshop in Manhattan, a dozen or so leaders from New York-Presbyterian Hospital were present. I learned that New York-Presbyterian employees knew a story about the hospital’s longtime CEO Dr. Herb Pardes (now retired) that explained why he was passionate about valuing people and being intentional about connecting with patients and their families.

As a seven-year old boy, Pardes was hospitalized for several months with Perthes disease. During this time he underwent medical procedures administered by aloof healthcare professionals. Hospital policies during those years restricted the time young Herb could spend with his family, time that would have reduced the stress, anxiety and sadness he felt. The trauma he experienced from a period of hospitalization that isolated him from warm, supportive and loving relationships transformed Pardes’ life and instilled in him a drive to reform the delivery of healthcare.

The people at New York-Presbyterian knew Dr. Pardes’ story. His passion inspired them and it reinforced why valuing and being intentional about connecting with people is so important.

3. Live Your Leadership Values

Make sure you live your leadership values to reinforce them. Think of it this way: With words and deeds you are adding to or diminishing the narrative of the story that supports your mission and values.

Through his words and deeds, Dr. Pardes sent an unambiguous message about a paramount value at New York-Presbyterian. He was regularly seen making bedside visits to patients and their families. Although many CEOs of huge organizations would see this as inefficient, Dr. Pardes understood that walking the talk sent a powerful message.

In addition to taking time to connect with patients and their families, Dr. Pardes said in interviews with publications and in presentations that he wanted to be sure that the doctors and nurses at New York-Presbyterian are caring individuals and that they are happy at work. He advocated that everyone should have personal and professional mentors and he strived to help his employees balance their personal lives and professional growth. To extend the feeling of connection outward, he encouraged staff members to memorize the names of not only patients but the patients’ family members as well.

Led by Dr. Pardes from 2000 until 2011, the inspired people of New York-Presbyterian propelled their hospital to be recognized as one of the top hospitals in America for patient care, management and consistent profitability.

When you: 1. Connect people with your vision, 2. Connect people with your leadership values, and 3. Live your leadership values, it engages, enthuses and energizes employees so they give their best efforts and do the long and hard work necessary to achieve sustainable superior performance.