Storytelling as a Competency for Leadership: Lessons from The Greatest Showman

In the The Greatest Showman , P.T. Barnum uses a well placed story to recruit his first circus actor. The scene starts with a knock on the front door. The actor’s mother answers.

P.T. says, “I’m looking for your son.”

The mom replies, “I don’t have a son.”

He responds, with paper in hand, “I see from this birth certificate that you do.” She lets him in, because he’s right— she does have a son and he’s in the house.

When the son, Charles, comes out of his room, P.T. kneels down and says, “I am putting together a show, and I need a star.”

Charles says, “You want people to laugh at me.”

P.T. answers, “They are laughing anyway, kid, why not get paid for it?”

Charles turns around, walks back into his room and shuts the door in P.T.’s face.

P.T. approaches his room, and starts to talk through the door, holding a small image of a cut-out character. “I see a solider, no, a general riding across the stage with a sword and a gun and… and.. the most beautiful uniform ever made. People will come from all over the world, and when they see him they won’t laugh. They will salute.”

Charles opens the door. He cracks an ever so slight smile. He’s in.

There are three parts of this scene that are worthy of review:

  1. P.T. did his homework. He found and brought the birth certificate to prove this young man existed and that he had a mother.
  2. The first appeal was about P.T., not about Charles. Rightly so, Charles outright rejected it the offer.
  3. The second appeal painted a von with imagery, emotion and aspiration for Charles – to be dressed like a respected, revered solider and shifting how people would now salute, not mock him.

Great leaders can’t lead with their selfish desires. “I need a star.” They need to lead with the audience and their aspirations. In this case, Charlie became the central character of his story. “I see a solider… no a general…”

Charlie can see the vision, and he follows it. He makes P.T. Barnum a leader.