In his book, Eyewitness to Power, David Gergen writes, “I asked Reagan how he wanted to explain what he was seeking there. “ “Let’s tell a story,” he responded. Reagan, ‘The Great Communicator’, regarded storytelling – or narrative, as one of the most effective weapons in his repertoire. I think this ‘weapon’ goes beyond a ‘means to an end’ and can find a place as a core value of any company serious about its values.
Howard Gardner’s study of eleven different leaders, from George Marshal and Eleanor Roosevelt to Pope John XXIII and Martin Luther King, Jr reveals that they all told stories “about themselves and their groups, about where they were coming from and where they were headed, about what was to be feared, struggled against, and dreamed about.” Their stories provided dynamic perspective, a backdrop to a journey in perpetual motion. These leaders understood that story provided more than a headline or snapshot, for these leader’s stories related a drama that unfolded over time. Gardner goes on to say that, “the most basic story is about identity of the group: who they are, why they are special, how they can be distinguished from other groups”
Stories by their very nature connect and inspire people; they can be used to explain complexity and weave diverse tapestries into coherency; they provide guidance and instruction; they shine light and provide perspective; they offer helpful metaphors and words to otherwise unspeakable emotions. Leaders need to be attentive to the collective story and by adopting story as a corporate value, will be able to achieve a level of engagement previously unattainable.
Stories by nature “must compete with many other existing stories; and if the new stories are to succeed, they must transplant, suppress, complement, or in some measure outweigh the earlier stories, as well as contemporary oppositional ‘counter-stories’. In a Darwinian sense, the ‘memes’ – a culture’s version of genes – called stories compete with one another for favour, and only the most robust stand a chance of gaining ascendency.”
Providing perspective (on the past), understanding (for the present) and being able to articulate the future is important work for any leader. Stories provide the framework and language that make this work possible. As Storytellers, leaders intentionally play the twin roles of visionary storytellers (creators of a ‘new story’) as well as that of the innovative storytellers (bringing fresh attention or a new twist to a latent story). By understanding what is meant by ‘value’, the synergy with ‘story’ will be self-evident. The definition of ‘value’ is the ‘beliefs of a person or social group in which they have an emotional investment (either for or against something); in general, important and enduring beliefs or ideals shared by the members of a culture about what is good or desirable and what is not. Values exert major influence on the behaviour of an individual and serve as broad guidelines in all situations. So often attention given to address corporate behaviours is undertaken in isolation from the articulated corporate values. That is akin to driving without paying attention to the dashboard. It doesn’t make sense and only serves to further depreciate the stated values, ensuring that they remain lifeless words on some wall and littering scattered PR material.
Most leadership has the challenge of holding paradox together: it is the story of the tree (symbol of rootedness and stability) and the canoe (symbol of unrestricted exploration and wandering). There is a Maori proverb that states, ‘Trace out your ancestral stem, so that it may be known where you come from and in which direction you are going’. This in essence is ‘story’ and as a leader you should be ever mindful of the journey’s source as well as the direction in which you are going. At repeated junctions you should be pausing to reflect, share and script your story. This awareness, the mind-ware and skills needed to travel in such a manner should be an entrenched company value: one that all understand, share in and for which all assume responsibility.
When this happens, other important business basics such as customer care fall into place. In the past, we in TomorrowToday have employed story to undertake a ‘cultural audit’ for a client concerned about organizational behaviour and wanting to change things. We have used story as a framework to undertake strategic thinking that proved to be engaging and creative; we have used story in the context of leadership development programmes to connect participants as well as for illustrating powerful leadership lessons and insights. I suspect all this represents only the start!
And speaking of starts…it might just be that a good place for you to start would be to add ‘Storycatcher’ or ‘Storyframer’ under your leadership title, and if that doesn’t work, at least add ‘story’ to that list of corporate values!
Story: there can be no more important ally in the work leaders do in times of such perpetual change, uncertainty and flux.