Leadership Questions: What’s the Story?

There is more than one side to the story. Every leader needs to remember that as they sort through difficult and challenging times. So recently, when I was reading the book, “Making Thinking Visible“, I ran across a great set of questions from K. Hanawalt (p. 32) that will help leaders think through their situations:

  1. What’s the story?
  2. What’s the other story?
  3. How do you know the story?
  4. Why know or tell the story?
  5. Where’s the power in the story?

These five questions can help you make a situation and your thinking about it visible, to help you make sense of it.

Often as new leaders, we run into a situation that appears to tell one story, but as we dig and engage with the organization, we realize that there is a another story as well.  It’s important to understand the hidden aspects of the story that explain behaviour, or culture, or rationalize an experience.  For example, a few years ago I had a group of students who were struggling to work together.  Three of the students complained that the fourth was always late or completely missing meetings.   But when I spoke with the fourth student she accepted that she missed meetings, because they were changed at the last minute to another time. Between arranging for child care and sharing a car and cell phone with her husband, she just couldn’t accommodate last minute changes. So the first story was about a bad student who was free riding on her colleagues. The other story was about a group of students who weren’t aware that their own behaviour was contributing to the situation.

Understanding how you know a story might signal if and where bias might exist.  For example, when you read stories about nutrition in the media, knowing whether a story came from an academic researcher or from a celebrity about their diet should tell you a bit about the story.

Last Wednesday I attended holiday party for an organization in town. The CEO gave a profound year in review, telling the stories of her employees’ experiences that year. The reason to tell the story? This organization had a challenging year, and celebrating the joys and struggles, personal and professional, of each person was a wonderful way to celebrate the resilience and robustness of the organization. Knowing why you are telling a story, and why the story is powerful can be useful when sharing with others.

Asking these questions helps us understand and manage the power of stories. Stories send messages to organizations in many different ways. So the next time you hear a story, ask the five questions.


Ritchhart, R. (2011). Making Thinking Visible: How to Promote Engagement, Understanding, and Independence for All Learners (First edition.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.



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