Storytelling: A Pathway to Leadership and Purpose

Chad WilliamsonConference, Leadership Programs, Pedagogy Of Leadership®, Student Leadership

By Chad Williamson, LL’07, Co-Founder, Noble Impact

Being a speaker at the gcLi Symposium was a surreal experience for me because I barely passed high school and didn’t finish college until my early thirties. I’d never been on an Ivy League campus before, but here I was, surrounded by the University of Pennsylvania’s prestige and Ph.Ds…and it wasn’t an accident. I was invited!

When Dr. Ted Fish, gcLi Executive Director first contacted me about the possibility of speaking, I was curious about the theme:

“Building Cultures of Leadership”

As I prepared my pitch deck, I knew the first slide had to be a specific quote from Dr. Jennifer Aaker via her video on The Power of Story:

“Those who tell the best stories will become the best leaders.”

The title of my session was Storytelling: A Pathway to Leadership and Purpose. Therefore, I thought it would be beneficial to reframe the symposium theme for my specific session:

“Building Cultures of STORYTELLING”

In true fashion to our curriculum at Noble Impact, my first challenge to all participants was to answer the prompt“So, can you tell me a little bit about yourself?”

At Noble Impact we believe this question to be the most important query to answer in all of our curriculum and believe if you answer this question through storytelling, it will garner you tremendous access and opportunity in life. However, the majority of people do not answer with a story, e.g. feeling, they answer with stats, e.g. facting. 


Each session varied a little, but everyone had a chance to share their answer with a partner through a “facting” and “feeling” lens. We challenge our Noble Impact students to go the “feeling” route as it connects to Dr. Brene Brown’s “Power of Vulnerability” and Emily Esfahani-Smith’s “Power of Meaning.” Although it’s a significant process, we believe this activity is foundational to building a healthy culture where people listen to each other and validate the meaningful story of one another.

Initial understanding of this process happened when we launched Noble Impact as a summer institute in 2013, and our storytelling progression has emerged through encounters we’ve had with different individuals along the way. Our goal was to connect the classroom to the community and the community to the classroom through purpose-driven curriculum and a culture of relevancy. Working with Malcolm London took it to another level.

I first reached out to Malcolm in April 2013 after watching his TED Talk called High School Training Ground and I invited him to our summer institute. It was a great experience, and I knew we had to continue the relationship as his impact was evident. Therefore, I asked him to return to Little Rock the following year and he engaged our students in a three-day seminar focused on poetry and the meaning of words. I’ll always remember his initial lesson because of the questions he asked:Who are you? Who were you? Who do you need to be?

Although I didn’t have time to talk much about Malcolm at the gcLi Symposium, his focus on “WHO” has carried with me ever since, and the poetic version of his story connects to his purpose. t also connects to his social activism, where he displays leadership.

The person I did talk about was Tristan Walker, and I invoke his journey every chance I get.

As my session continued, introducing Tristan was critical because I was attempting to communicate the important association between individual personality and institutional purpose. My underlying theme of the session was focused on how we connect ourselves and our personal stories to a bigger purpose. Tristan’s personal story and how he communicates it has led to the success of his Silicon Valley startup, Walker and Company. I introduced him by showing his company video and after it ended, I asked the question I always ask“Why did Tristan start Walker and Company?”

Watch Now: Walker & Company from Bevel on Vimeo.

I’ve asked this question and have introduced Tristan Walker through this process in at least 100 presentations and / or classrooms. No one ever provides the answer on the first try, but this time was different.

I was scheduled to present in three different sessions and it was in the second session that a young man chimed in from the front rowHe didn’t have a father to teach him how to shave.”

“Wait, can you repeat that?” He repeated and then I repeated to make sure everyone heard it. I was shocked, but then I wasn’t.

After the session, this young man came up to me and said, “Thanks for your presentation, I really appreciated the Tristan Walker reference because when I was seven, my father died. I didn’t have a father to teach me how to shave.” We walked out of the building together and that’s when I connected with Marshall McCurties from Mary Institute and Country Day School in Saint Louis.

There are many conferences, symposiums, and summits but the gcLi Symposium made an impact on me because of my encounter with Marshall…I’ll never forget it because it’s a story that I’ll share for a long time.

There are slides and stories I use in most presentations, and I usually end with one that has a quote from Maya Angelou, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

After my presentation, I hope everyone walked away inspired to spread the power of story. Storytelling has a purpose to bring us together while we develop and build HEALTHY cultures of leadership in our schools and for our children..

Chad Williamson is the co-founder of Noble Impact, a technology and SEL-driven education nonprofit that partners with K-12 schools. The program provides relevant and purpose-driven career education to help prepare students to thrive in the future world and an economy of constant change. Chad is a 2007 graduate of the gcLi Leadership Lab, and was a featured speaker at the gcLi Symposium II in October 2017. Chad previously taught at Berkeley Preparatory School in Tampa, Florida. He is a graduate of the Clinton School of Public Service at the University of Arkansas.