The Power of Experiential Storytelling in Leadership Training

By Doreen Linneman
  • Jan 30, 2024

Everyone knows the power of an effective leader. Whether it’s business, politics, or the local community, a good leader can initiate widespread change and inspire others to be the best versions of themselves. So, it’s no surprise that leadership training and development has grown into a multi-billion-dollar industry, leaving businesses with dozens of options to choose from. 


However, not all leadership training is created equally. Recent surveys show that many business leaders have found leadership programs they’ve invested in to be ineffective. That’s because many leadership programs fall flat. They aren’t memorable or impactful and, therefore, aren’t effective. It doesn’t matter how good a program’s content is. The lessons will never stick if you can’t establish a meaningful connection between the material and the participants. At Riverbend Group, we do things differently. We specialize in creating immersive learning experiences that reinforce lessons through real-life experiences.


Let me show you what I mean using our latest offering, ONE Rowing®, as an example.


The theme of ONE Rowing is alignment. In order to create business momentum, leaders need to work together as a single team versus different teams under one roof. We use the sport of crew and the inspirational story of “The Boys in the Boat” to set the stage. Leveraging the true, epic story establishes common ground for the participants, and the experience element makes the leadership learning tangible and applicable.


The Boys in the Boat tells the 1936 US Olympic Rowing Team story. Nine young men who came from nothing in the sleepy lumber town of Seattle, Washington, united to defeat not only the established Ivy League teams like Yale and Harvard but went on to beat Germany for the gold medal. It’s the perfect story to illustrate what can be accomplished when we work together.


Using both story and experience is a critical combination to produce effective training, serving both an emotional and practical purpose. Stories have long been used to inspire and put our experiences into perspective. If nine farm boys can work together to win a gold medal, surely coworkers can join together to accomplish their business goals. From a practical perspective, stories provide a common ground and a neutral vocabulary for participants to discuss roadblocks, in a relatable way. Whether we want to admit it or not, business challenges can quickly devolve into personal conflicts when people feel they are being blamed for a problem. A good story enables people to reframe their issues from a shared, neutral perspective.


For example, in the sport of rowing, the boat only propels forward if everyone is rowing in sync. There are no individuals; everyone is part of a greater whole. Every seat position has its specific purpose, and you have to trust that the others are doing their part, and they have to trust that you’re doing yours. Oftentimes, teams struggling with alignment are pursuing the same goal, but through different methods. This causes the business to stall like a boat whose rowers are out of sync.


The second part of a good leadership training program is the experience. Humans are designed to learn through doing. Until we can apply information to lived experience, we can’t truly understand its meaning. This applies to everything from basic concepts like numbers to complex, abstract ideas like those in leadership training.


We reinforce our learning by taking these ideas and tying them to a real-world, shared experience. Achieving alignment is not easy. Rowing a boat is not easy. After teaching participants about alignment, we take them out on the water so they can experience first-hand how hard rowing is and how hard achieving alignment can be. This helps them build empathy, so when they go back to the office to apply what they’ve learned, they have a better understanding of the difficulty of the task ahead, but they also come back with the tools and experience to improve it.