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Ed Hoffman, Chief Knowledge Officer, NASA

Grateful Leadership and Grateful Stories…

The use of stories has long been a tool of leaders. They are used to promote dialogue, enhance learning, offer inspiration, connect people, and express genuine gratitude. I started the formal use of stories as a learning device at NASA about fifteen years ago. We would have knowledge sharing forums where project leaders would share their stories of success and failure. The forums and storytelling were a big success. As a result, I was asked by my manager, “Why are these sessions so successful?” I indicated I would get back with an answer shortly.

However, at the time I really wasn’t sure why the story-telling forums and publications were so successful. Why do we embrace stories? I have become somewhat known in the project world for my championship of learning and unlearning through stories. I’ve even co-authored two books on the subject, with my colleague and friend Alex Laufer. But the question still remained, why do stories work?

As I researched this question I found there are many reasons given for the power of story. Most would agree that stories engage listeners personally and emotionally. The metaphor of stories promote engagement and personal connection. Since stories almost always tell the tale of a hero (project manager) and a group of people (project team) facing a challenge, listeners experience the story through the events that are shared. We tend to identify with the hero and challenge and experience a personal connection. This emotional connection ensures active learning and reflection. It stimulates discussion and passionate dialogue (arguments are common when discussing the lessons of a story). It also helps that every project is a story from start to finish. Mention the Sydney Opera House, London Olympics, NASA Apollo and powerful images are evoked that transmit the emotional lessons of leading a project.

All of this is logical. Yet, there is a more raw power to stories.

Then I had a discussion with my friend and colleague Judy Umlas. Judy has written the wonderful book Grateful Leadership and asked me to write a column for this blog. I was free to do what I wanted. Over the years, Judy and I usually return to a discussion of stories. I know that Grateful Leadership and The Power of Acknowledgment derive their strength and vigor from the real life stories that Judy tells throughout, and the new stories that come in from those who read and hear the ones in the books and courses. So we talked about stories, Grateful Leadership, managing projects and then a light when on in my head.

The Power of Stories…

It became clear to me that the power of stories is fairly simple. Stories work because at the heart of a story is grateful recognition of our human need to be heard, and a desire that others listen to our stories. Whether it is to understand our frustration or heartbreak of a project that failed, or celebrate with us a challenging mission that concluded with success. The human need to be heard and appreciated is a vital connection with our life. When we ask someone to share their story of project X, we are basically saying we value your experience and want to hear what you have to say. There are few things as genuinely communal as sitting around telling stories. For both the storyteller and the listener, it is a sacred act of human engagement and gratitude for facing life’s challenges. This emotional power makes learning natural.

I keep a growing file of stories. I look at them to determine trends, and lessons that I should be learning.  I review them to see if there is a pattern to my life. I organize them by categories, such as decision making, culture, leadership, perseverance. I also keep them so that I can select the perfect story to illustrate a point. Mostly, I do this because I love stories, and I am grateful for the power stories have to engage and connect us all.

So, do you have a little time to tell me your favorite story? If so, you can write to me at [email protected]. Be sure to copy [email protected], as she will love hearing your stories, too!

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Dr. Ed Hoffman is NASA’s Chief Knowledge Officer. He works within NASA as well as with leaders of industry, academia, professional associations, and other government agencies to develop the agency’s capabilities in program and project management and engineering.

Dr. Hoffman has written numerous journal articles, co-authored Shared Voyage: Learning and Unlearning from Remarkable Projects (NASA, 2005) and Project Management Success Stories: Lessons of Project Leaders (Wiley, 2000), and speaks frequently at conferences and associations. He serves as adjunct faculty at The George Washington University. 

He holds a Doctorate, as well as Master of Arts and Master of Science degrees from Columbia University in the area of social and organizational psychology. He received a Bachelor of Science in Psychology from Brooklyn College in 1981.




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