In 1987 I started work in an engineering office attached to a significant manufacturing facility.  Back then, Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) was not required to enter the foundry, which was a chaotic operation with large sand moulds scattered across the floor.  Cranes lifted ladles filled with molten metal through the dust and smoke, and operators would stand alongside the ladles to pour the metal into its mould. 

1987 was also the year new Alcoa CEO Paul O’Neill delivered his maiden speech to a group of major shareholders and market analysts.  Lucinda Holdforth wrote about this moment in her 2019 book Leading Lines

O’Neill began by saying:

“I want to talk to you about worker safety.  Every year, numerous Alcoa workers are injured so badly they miss a day of work.  Our safety record is better than the general American workforce, especially considering our employees work with metals that are 1,500 degrees… But it’s still not good enough…  I intend to go for zero injuries.”

At this stage his audience, who had been expecting to hear about shareholder value and competitive advantage, were confused.  This kind of talk would usually be delivered at an internal staff meeting, not to the shareholders who would quickly pass judgement on the new CEO. 

O’Neill went on to say:

“If we bring our injury rates down, it won’t be because of the cheerleading or the nonsense you hear from other CEO’s.  It will be because individuals at this company have agreed to become part of something important, they’ve devoted themselves to creating a habit of excellence.”

I’m sure this message would have captivated the employees of Alcoa and helped them to feel aligned to O’Neill’s vision. Zero injuries was an important goal and a step towards Alcoa being a better company. O’Neill would have felt empathy for the workers and given them dignity and respect.

It was obvious to every Alcoa employee that in making this statement their boss was taking a huge risk.  The top investors in the company wanted him out.  If something didn’t happen, and fast, O’Neill’s tenure was likely to be a short one.

However, when it came to improving safety standards at heavy engineering plants O’Neill was ahead of the curve.  Even though his message reflected the feelings of many other CEO’s, it was all about where and how he delivered the message. 

When he left Alcoa in 1999, a lifetime in terms of CEO tenure, Alcoa was indeed transformed. 

In his article How Changing One Habit Quintupled Alcoa’s Income, Drake Baer wrote:

“Over O’Neill’s tenure, Alcoa dropped from 1.86 lost work days to injury per 100 workers to 0.2. By 2012, the rate had fallen to 0.125.  Surprisingly, that impact extended beyond worker health. One year after O’Neill’s speech, the company’s profits hit a record high.”

His reputation was such that he accepted the invitation to be the United States Secretary of the Treasury.  In the same way Toyota would lead a quality revolution with their lean manufacturing approach, Alcoa would devote themselves to ‘excellence’ in heavy manufacturing. 

It was a philosophy that spread. 

The values embraced in O’Neill’s speech were actively supported by my organisation and in turn they became my values too.

I was fortunate enough to be involved in the transformation of our old-style foundry into a well-organised modern work place, unrecognisable from its original state. 

The important question to ask from this story is, ‘Why was O’Neill able to achieve a step change when others failed?’  Many others in the world have created a vision like O’Neill, but without effective storytelling, change won’t happen.   

O’Neill went on to make safety a keystone habit in Alcoa for everyone.

The twentieth century philosopher Hannah Arendt famously said:

“Storytelling reveals meaning without committing the error of defining it.” 

As someone who experienced and survived the worst of totalitarian regimes, later coining the phrase ‘the banality of evil’, she theorised that ethics can only be taught by telling stories.  

The effective story, like O’Neill’s, delivered in the right place at the right time, sends a message at once - simple, but also profound in its ethic values.

It is these stories which contributed to significant change in deeply held workplace attitudes and values - as illustrated by the transformation of our foundry.  When these stories took root, behaviour was changed and legal framework and regulators followed suit. 

The Three Core Elements of Rhetoric

The effective story stirs the mind and the heart, it gets people excited in a way nothing else can.  The words “I have a dream” immediately take us to the story of Martin Luther King and the United States Civil Rights movement.  

In her book, Holdforth points out that our modern tradition of storytelling goes back to the Ancient Greeks who placed sound rhetoric at the centre of civic duty.  

Aristotle outlined the three core elements of rhetoric. The first of these being ‘ethos’, concerning the character of the speaker - a big part of which is his reputation.  The other core elements were emotional impact and reasoned argument. 

There’s no doubting the abilities of Winston Churchill, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela when it came to emotional impact and reasoned argument. In each case, it can be argued their ‘ethos’ contributed to their success. Their characters were each formed in difficult circumstance.

Authentic storytelling is a learned skill.  While some of us have better instincts than others, the process of great storytelling always starts with listening and thinking. 

Effective Leaders Must Develop Empathy

Yes, the storyteller is also a listener.  In management writing ‘empathy’ is a favourite subject, and for good reason. 

In his article The Focused Leader Daniel Goleman claims the ability to focus on others is the foundation of empathy and building social relationships. He believes those who can effectively focus on others are easy to recognise. 

“They are the ones who find common ground, whose opinions carry the most weight and who people want to work with.”

Goleman claims there is a body of research suggesting the attributes of empathy can be developed.  For example, one study found if you act in a caring way, looking into a person’s eyes and paying attention, you would start to feel more engaged. 

Moving beyond the practice of empathetic listening, the leader must set time aside for focussed and reflective thought.  They must turn listening, personal experience and reflection, into stories. 

For some this may require a practice of journaling, so they can capture the stories of success and failure which become part of their character.  Only then will stories have the emotional impact Aristotle claimed as a core element of effective rhetoric.

Developing Your Storytelling Skills to Get Results

Similarly, the storyteller, whether relying on spoken or written words, must work hard to develop their storytelling skills. For example:

It is important to study language, and to select the most suitable nouns and verbs that convey the right sensations and emotions to foster empathy from the listener.

A confident storyteller must use compelling imagery, avoiding clichés, all with an appreciation of how metaphors communicate deep meaning within different contexts. 

A sound storyteller will understand alliteration, repetition and rhythm can build ‘emotional commitment’.

Finally, the experienced storyteller will understand how to start with action, to draw the listener or reader in, and then develop the story without being too direct.

Having developed these skills, the storyteller must wear them lightly.  Authentic stories (like authentic leaders) must demonstrate humility, incorporating truly held values to establish a meaningful relationship between the teller and the hearer.  The leader, regardless of any positional power, must dedicate themselves to the art and practice of rhetoric.


Peter Wells

Principal Engineer, NSW – Engenium Pty Ltd