Leading Like Abraham Lincoln, Steve Jobs, Aristotle, & Warren Buffett

The Ancient Power of Storytelling


Hiding from a tropical downpour under a palm palapa on a beach in Mexico I was reminded of the Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortez and his men on this same stretch of coast over 500 years earlier.

Cortez was rallying his small group of soldiers to face the entire Aztec Empire with lavish stories of cities of gold and of the glory of conquest saying, “We Spaniards know a sickness of the heart that only gold can cure.”

Cortez then made the famous order to “Burn the boats”.

The power and conviction of Cortez and his storytelling led the Spanish troops to burn their only transportation home. With limited supplies and weapons the small contingent of 600 men defeated the Aztecs and claimed Mexico for Spain.

Since antiquity humans have gathered to tell of feats, old and new, and relive former glories to motivate and inspire others. Humans are hardwired to feel a deep emotional connection to stories and it is no coincidence that world’s greatest leaders, both present and past, are also some of the greatest story tellers.

Leading Through Stories

“That reminds me…” When Abraham Lincoln uttered those three simple words, listeners were soon hypnotised by the American President’s charisma and wit.

Lincoln is considered to be one of the United States greatest Presidents and his leadership style is trademarked by his penchant for jokes and storytelling.

To his own admission Lincoln said:

They say I tell a great many stories. I reckon I do; but I have learned from long experience that plain people, take them as they run, are more easily influenced through the medium of a broad and humorous illustration than in any other way…

Lincoln’s roots on the frontier fostered his love of humorous stories and anecdotes. One of the few books that he owned was Aesop's Fables, which he could recite from memory.

When Lincoln became a lawyer, he used his jokes and stories to gain the goodwill of juries, frequently modifying them to accommodate each situation. More than once his opposing counsel would complain to the judge that Lincoln’s stories were irrelevant and distracting to the jury.

As President Lincoln would use his abilities to persuade unruly Generals, ward off the press, and charm the American people. Walt Whitman saw something else in Lincoln’s storytelling; he thought it was “a weapon which he employ’d with great skill.”

Lincoln’s presidency was defined by the brutal and bloody American Civil War. Throughout the conflict Lincoln was tested by his Generals, Congress, and the public to make difficult decisions in regards to the war, slavery, and the fate of the nation. Through it all Lincoln was able to balance the fate of the nation with his wit and remarkable storytelling abilities.

“The habit of storytelling,” recalled Lincoln’s Secretary of Treasury Hugh McCulloch, “became part of his nature and he gave free rein to it, even when the fate of the nation seemed to be trembling in the balance. … Storytelling was to him a safety-valve, and that he indulged in it, not only for the pleasure it afforded him, but for a temporary relief from oppressing cares; that the habit had been so cultivated that he could make a story illustrate a sentiment and give point to an argument.”

Lincoln effectively used storytelling to lead the United States through one of the most violent and turbulent moments of its history. The power of storytelling is not lost on modern leaders and in fact is even more relevant today.

How To Tell an Irresistible Story

Steve Jobs once told an employee at NeXT that:

“…the most powerful person in the world is the story teller. The storyteller sets the vision, values and agenda of an entire generation that is to come…”

Jobs was famous for his ability to capture the attention of the world with his presentations and abilities to convey a story. Whether it was introducing the iPhone or making a commencement speech his storytelling created emotionally charged events that forged a deeper connection not only with the companies and products he produced but his own legacy as well.

The art of effective storytelling can be best described using Freytag’s Pyramid - a dramatic structure used for thousands of years. This structure for telling stories has been used since Aristotle, used masterfully by Shakespeare, and was used by Steve Jobs to put soul into product launches.

Like the ancient Greeks, Jobs mastered the the cinematic and emotional connection of storytelling to a point where audiences would shout and cheer in anticipation.

One of the most famous examples is the introduction of the Macintosh in 1984. For his first act, Jobs incited the crowd gathered at Flint Center in Cupertino near the Apple campus with a Bob Dylan quote: “The loser now will be later to win, for the times they are a changin’.”

He built the action by introducing the villain of the story “Big Blue” or IBM, which was poised to dominate the personal computing market at the time. He compared IBM’s to the all powerful and encompassing “Big Brother” in George Orwell’s novel 1984.

At the peak of the crowds intensity Jobs proclaimed in a growing voice, “Will Big Blue dominate the entire computer industry? The entire information age? Was George Orwell right?”

Screams and protests filled the room as people shouted “NO! NO!”. Jobs slowly walked over to a table, pulled out the Macintosh from a bag, plugged it in and, with a dramatic flourish, slowly pulled a floppy disk from his jacket pocket, inserted it into the computer.

He stood aside as the lights darkened and the theme from Chariots of Fire began to play and a series of images filled the screen. Viewers watched in amazement. As the music faded and lights returned the crowed was in awe.

But Jobs wasn’t finished.

For his final act he addressed the crowed announcing, “Now, we've done a lot of talking about Macintosh recently, but today for the first time ever, I’d like to let Macintosh speak for itself.” On cue, Macintosh spoke in a digitized voice using a speech-generating program that seemed only to exist in science fiction:

Hello, I am Macintosh. It sure is great to get out of that bag. Unaccustomed as I am to public speaking, I'd like to share with you a maxim I thought of the first time I met an IBM mainframe: Never trust a computer you can’t lift. Obviously, I can talk right now, but I'd like to sit back and listen. So, it is with considerable pride that I introduce a man who has been like a father to me: Steve Jobs.

Former Mac evangelist Guy Kawasaki fondly remembers the emotional electricity that wowed the audience that day. He said, “Steve’s introduction of Macintosh in 1984 was a magical moment. The earth shifted on its axis a little that day. Steve took it out of its bag, and the Macintosh ‘talked’ for itself. For many of us who had not had children yet, it was the closest thing to having a baby.”

Steve Jobs took us on a journey into the world of possibility with every product launch. His mastery of storytelling turned a product launch into an emotionally charged moment and gave a deeper meaning to each item. He drew in our curiosity with more intensity and curiosity by “wowing” us with a product’s features, functionality, design and must-have aura.

The Physical Effects of Storytelling

Warren Buffett is one of the world’s greatest investors and is famous for his annual letter to shareholders and shareholders meetings. His use of storytelling and metaphor means that even when Mr Buffett is talking about something as complex, impersonal and abstract as finance, he is able to make it sound simple, human and concrete.

Buffett can barely get through a sentence without using one of his colorful metaphors such as, “You can’t produce a baby in one month by getting nine women pregnant,” or “Only when the tide goes out do you discover who’s been swimming naked.”

One of Warren Buffett’s key business principles states:

“We will be candid in all our communications.”

Using relatable stories and colorful metaphors Buffet is able to connect and build trust with shareholders and investors. The physically effects of storytelling reveals that an innate and emotional connection by activating several parts of our brains.

The deep human connection of storytelling evokes a strong neurological response. Neuroeconomist Paul Zak‘s research indicates that our brains produce the stress hormone cortisol during the tense moments in a story, which allows us to focus. Likewise the climactic turning point and moment of triumph releases oxytocin, the feel-good chemical that promotes connection and empathy.

While facts and figures engage a small area of the brain, stories engage multiple brain regions that work together to build colorful, rich three-dimensional images and emotional responses. As we read stories we quickly begin to feel as if what’s happening out there is actually happening in here. Each sensory image, sound, texture, color, sensation and emotion provides a hook for our brain as the story draws us in and maintains our attention effortlessly.

For storytellers like Buffett using his folksy and midwestern form of candid communication gives shareholders an emotional connection to Buffett’s fundamentals of investing. His stories illustrate the lessons learned over a lifetime of investing and provides a deeper meaning to the intricacies of finance like never before.

Tell Your Story

Even with technology’s increasingly sophisticated way to share our images, videos, and messages of experiences and create never before seen products or services, our brains are slower to adapt.

While some anecdotes and stories such as Cortez burning his ships or IBM creating an all knowing computer system may be a stretch of the truth, it can be an effective method of sharing your message.

Inspire your team, awe your customers, and lead a new generation with your story. The authenticity of human experience shared through stories are hardwired in our psychology to bring a richness and deeper connection to people, products, and society.


Thanks for taking the time to read this article. For more historical and science backed solutions to living awesome and exploring why we do what we do please be sure to Follow on LinkedIn or Twitter. Feel free to Recommend below and I’d love to hear your comments on how I could have improved it.