Leadership: Article about Seth by Sue Darcey: Seth Kahan: Changing the Nature of Leadership, One Story at a Time

by Sue Darcey

Former World Bank Knowledge Management Program Director, Steve Denning, likes to tell the tale of how he first discovered that storytelling could motivate others to achieve their best work. “I stumbled on the power of storytelling after many years as a manager. I learnt a great deal about how story could be used to inspire leadership in the business world working with Seth Kahan.”

“In discussions with Seth, I understood more clearly the difference between business storytelling and entertainment storytelling, and what were the components of a story that could motivate others,” said Denning, who went on to author four books about how storytelling can catalyze change.

At the time Kahan was working under Denning as a Senior Information Officer and Communications Manager for the World Bank, and had a keen interest in storytelling himself gleaned from a rich background of unusual life experiences.

Using Improv Theatre and “Rites of Passage” to Facilitate Communication Kahan spent many of his college days leading improvisational street theatre groups while attending Indiana University, where he received a BA in Mathematics. On the street, he explored the separation between actors and audience members, finding new ways to include the audience and use their contributions to enhance the performances.

His experience was further enriched when Kahan engaged in several rites of passage based on the practices of indigenous peoples, undertaking stints in sweat lodges and participating in a multi-day “vision quest.” In this remarkable experience “a person goes into nature, away from civilization to find his place in the world and returns to express this relationship within his community.”


From Seth:

“Rites of passage provide the social infrastructure required for people to make the transition from childlike dependence to adult responsibility.

“Today for most workers, it’s much more of a transaction – I put in time, you give me a salary and benefits. This does not ignite people’s passion, nor tap their potential. It’s a loss for the person who spends so much of their life in a less-than-challenging world, and it’s a loss for the organization including costs in productivity, efficiency, safety and compensation.

“Not to mention what can happen when some worker who ‘doesn’t get it’ acts out in public. Organizations today just can’t afford not to have their employees growing, educated, and aligned with strategy.

“I work with leaders to move their partners and subordinates to a new level of responsibility that goes beyond buy-in to co-creation. Together we design special events that move their most valuable players to a new level of performance.

“These experiences shift people from the transactional relationship to what I call a generative relationship – and this is true up and down the line, from the C-suite to the front lines. That is what my work is about. It happens through engagement and participation.

“Storytelling is an amazing tool because it is holistic, engaging the whole person. It makes it possible for people to bring all their resources, head and heart, to bear on creating new solutions.

“I am on a mission to provide the ways of working that lead to whole-self engagement and organizations that are competitive, successful, and making their best possible contributions to life.”


Earlier in his life Kahan had turned to storytelling, telling tales of Beowulf, King Arthur and folktales from around the world. “I was moved by Joseph Campbell’s work on the power of mythology to express human experience. I knew there were applications in contemporary organizations that could move people to new levels of participation and engagement with their work,” he says.

Kahan went on to use his early improvisational theater training and storytelling experiences to teach leaders and managers how to drive change within their organizations. He has built a consultancy around his methods, and now specializes in accelerating strategic change and leadership development. Kahan has built an impressive list of satisfied clients, including the World Bank, Peace Corps, Royal Dutch Shell, Marriott International, U.S. Geological Survey, the American Nurses Credentialing Center, and NASA, to name a few.

Using Storytelling to Build Trust

Kahan’s visionary methods come at a most opportune time. In an era where corporate takeovers and outsourcing are commonplace and technology seems to have replaced human ingenuity and teamwork, trust between leaders and managers in an organization may get left behind.

Sometimes, it is that very lack of trust that makes individuals within a group dig in their heels, close their ears and resist moving forward and embracing change. For example, “At Shell, one of the main issues was blockage in adoption of new technology or a new way of working,” said Larry Forster, Staff Engineer, Technology Planning and Implementation at Shell Exploration & Production Co., New Orleans. “But Kahan’s Connect & Collaborate sessions have gotten people unstuck when communication was not complete,” Forster said.

Seth Kahan has figured out a way to quickly restore the communications between leaders and managers, improving professional collaboration so that strategy goals can be realized with greater speed. He does this using a very low-tech and time-honored method: storytelling.

“Kahan inspires other because he has the facility to get people talking to each other and sharing personal information to build trust,” says Bob Van Hook, president of Transition Management Consulting, Washington, D.C. “If you have a high level of trust, you can get things done.”

Kahan’s methods have a remarkably high level of success, his admirers say, because he engages peoples’ hearts and spirits as well as their minds. He does this through his proprietary Connect & Collaborate sessions that allow each participant to tell their own stories of what past experiences had value for them, so that they can relate those same values to the task before them in the present day. “One approach Seth has is his ability and willingness to listen,” Forster remarked.

The Connect & Collaborate Method

It works through a simple set of steps. First, Kahan engages the organization’s leaders in the defining the business need. He asks, what’s driving the need to create more effective engagement? Then, he maps out a list of critical stakeholders by asking the question, who needs to be involved for the change to be successful? He conducts short telephone interviews with each of these key people.

“His telephone interviews with stakeholders, simple yet effectively structured, obtain factual information from the interviewees” about the mission to be accomplished, according to Forster. But they do something else equally important. The interviews help to establish a human-to-human connection with each stakeholder. “It’s important that I establish a relationship with each stakeholder in which they feel and understand that their perspective is an important piece of the overall picture.

I want them to give their personal best when it comes time for crafting solutions. To set the stage for this, I let them know how much their contribution is needed. This personal expression of caring is critical to moving them to a new level of contribution,” Kahan says.

“What I do compliments command-and-control,” Kahan says. “Connect & Collaborate is like the 4th wheel on a jeep. Without it, you just spin around and go nowhere. Once it’s on, you take off and can travel over rough terrain to get to where you want to be. In these sessions, people temporarily drop their hierarchical reporting relationships with each other and contribute to the collective wisdom so strategic change can be accelerated. Command-and-control has its place, too. When the session is over, people integrate their follow-up activities into the organization’s business processes.”

Kahan often leads community-building exercises in a Connect & Collaborate session. “I have people tell relevant stories from their personal experience. This allows a holistic knowledge transfer to take place, improving rapport and the quality of content that is shared. It makes it possible for people to feel part of the group, while at the same time improving the ability to translate what individuals have learned for the collective benefit.” His process was documented in a recently published article, The Power of Storytelling to JumpStart Collaboration, The Journal for Quality and Participation, Spring 2006.

Why Getting People to Connect Builds Long-Term Change

“The Connect & Collaborate method is successful,” Forster says, “because Seth has persuaded all stakeholders to experience and appreciate multiple points of view in a way that they value and find credible. Because of his extensive depth of experience working with other professional organizations, he can share others’ experiences in ways that help us see how to go forward. Seth gets involved in developing the solutions, and it’s helpful.”

The Connect & Collaborate experience is also useful in that it helps people fundamentally alter the way they think and act from that point on, and not just make some immediate change or decision on a tactical issue. “The most significant results are long term in nature,” Forster notes.

Kahan had similar success at NASA, says Gail Williams, Director of the Leadership Alchemy Program at Goddard Space Flight Center there. Kahan was also the first man ever invited to work with NASA GSFC’s Women’s Advisory Committee, where he helped cultivate community within the group, Williams said. “He helps people tap into their passion and energy in creative ways while helping them bond into a cohesive, high performing team,” Williams stated. “He designs whole-person learning activities that align with the philosophy of our leadership program. When people tap into their emotions, especially, the energy that is released is amazing.”

Bob Van Hook remembers a time in 2004 when he hired Kahan to work for the Center for American Nurses, where Van Hook was Interim Executive Director. “You have to understand that when nurses get together as a group, they tend to go in a bureaucratic direction, and nothing much gets done. Within this group, there was no consensus as to what the organization was all about. They needed that sense of purpose,” Van Hook noted.

“But soon, Seth had everyone telling their own personal stories to each other, using his storytelling techniques. Imagine 300 nurses, asked to tell what personal experiences had made them decide to become nurses in the first place,” Van Hook said. He added that each nurse was quickly engaged, and even the skeptical ones were involved.

Van Hook says, “The nurses told some amazing stories of courage and heartache, describing their fears and creating a lot of empathy among their cohorts.” Later, Kahan and Van Hook worked with the content of the stories that the nurses had identified as most important to them. They found connections to the organization’s goals and objectives which “allowed the group to put together their strategic plan,” he said.

Building a Portfolio of Satisfied Clients

“Seth’s work is always tailored to the organization,” says Williams of NASA. “By that I mean our objectives, mission, concerns, strengths, etc. His skill is unparalleled in creating a powerful and committed community.”

Williams thinks Kahan’s skills will improve leadership for other organizations. “Suffice it to say that I recommended him elsewhere at NASA, to the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, and to NOAA (National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Agency). All hired him, sometimes initially for a small task, and then later for larger work on an ongoing basis. He listens to his clients and designs learning and action-oriented activities that meet your needs,” she said.