Leadership And Stories
by Ed Konczal

"Stories constitute the single most powerful weapon in a leader's arsenal."
Dr. Howard Gardner, Professor, Harvard University, and Author of Leading Minds.

You might think that a degree in business or better yet an MBA is needed to become a leader - wrong! I have both, but when I got my first supervisory job, I realized how little I knew about what it took to be a good leader.

Look at the business leaders cited in the book Lessons From The Top. A random sampling of ten shows:

Leader Education
Carol Bartz Computer Science
Jack Welch Chemistry
Fred Smith B.A.
Michael Eisner B.A.
Charles Schwab MBA
Larry Bossidy B.A.
Elizabeth Dole J.D.
Martha Ingram B.A.
Lou Gerstner MBA
Steve Case B.A.

Only 2 out 10 have MBAs or business degrees. Of course a business degree helps but it doesn't guarantee that you will become a leader.

What I do remember from my course with Peter Drucker was his telling stories about how Alfred Sloane led General Motors to a transformation. He also told stories about his own development - when he was a young manager he learned how never to surprise your boss.

Stories stay with you because they involve people and how they deal with real problems and issues. Look at the best books in business - they all include stories or anecdotes about real business issues. As Thomas A. Stewart puts it, "Nothing serves a leader better than a knack for narrative. Stories anoint role models, impart values, and show how to execute indescribably complex tasks."

We think that story telling in business is an effective but greatly underused technique. According to Charlotte Linde, a linguist at Stanford University and the Institute for Research on Learning in Menlo Park, Calif., stories of identity help organizations bring in new members, adapt to change, and, crucially, define who is "us" (and who "them") and why we're here. She adds: "Stories play a big role in institutional memory--they are the principal means by which groups remember."

Stories are such potent carriers of values and memory and similar stories sometimes show up in more than one company. For instance, many companies share the story of the day an underling stops the boss from breaking a rule. In the IBM version, Tom Watson praises the security guard who forces him to go back for his identification. But when a Revlon receptionist won't let Charles Revson walk off with a sign-in sheet, he fires her. In one company the morale is, we obey rules; in the other, we obey rulers.

Notice what happens when people hear the words, "I'm going to tell you a story." They relax. They open up. They listen. They become neurologically receptive to new Information and new possibilities. The result of that state is that people retain more of what they hear, they internalize it and take it to "usability" more effectively. (Karen V. Bading, Janet E. Crawford and Lisa J. Marshall)

We agree with Michael Hattersley, who in his Harvard Business Review article says, "Too often, we make the mistake of thinking of business as a matter of pure rational calculation, something that in a few years computers will handle better than humans. One hears this in conference room and corridor: "What do the numbers indicate?" "Just give me the facts." "Let's weigh the evidence and make the right decision." And yet, truth to tell, few talents are more important to managerial success than knowing how to tell a good story."

How Companies Are Using Stories

  • The 3M company is currently using stories as part of its business planning to generate excitement and commitment. Their strategic stories set the stage, introduce dramatic conflict and outline the challenges the company is facing, and reach a resolution, which outlines the organization's approach to the future.
  • IBM preps its executives on how to get just the right kinds of stories to tell and retell.
  • Physician Sales & Service (PSS) employees chuckle whenever their CEO tells a story about a bad bank relationship. And they learn, or relearn, an important lesson: No matter how badly other people treat you, no matter how confident you get about your future, never burn your bridges. The power of this story inside PSS also offers a lesson about leadership itself: In the new world of business, where it's every executive's job to make sense of a fast-changing environment, storytelling is the ultimate leadership tool.
  • Noel Tichy in workshops with clients such as Ameritech, Royal Dutch/Shell, Coca-Cola, and US West. Business leaders, he says, need "a teachable point of view - a set of ideas about success in the marketplace and a set of values based on personal and organizational success." The best way to communicate that point of view is through a story.
  • The Corporate Story can be used in a number of ways. Human Resource Departments can include it in their orientation package, sharing with new employees all the hopes, struggles, and accomplishments the company has undergone over the years. This gives employees a sense of belonging, a feeling of being a part of something that has substance, and that in turn gives them a sense of security and pride. Corporate stories are also ideal sales and marketing tools, giving customers interesting, historical background information they might otherwise never know. In addition, corporate stories are excellent morale boosters, as they show that the contributions made by the "elders" of the company continue to be valued to this day. What new employee wouldn't want to give their all to a company that honors its past employees in such a way? (Haley & DiMaggio Newsletter, Volume 1 Number 1.)
  • Hewlett-Packard is a company that recognizes the power of stories. Most everyone at HP has heard about the time that Bill Hewlett found the door to the supply room locked, snapped it open with a bolt cutter, and left a note reading, "Don't ever lock this door again." It's a great lesson in prizing trust as well as order. Or about the time that Dave Packard toured an HP factory, saw a cheap, thin prototype for a new product, twisted it into a mangled ball, and declared it "a hunka junk." It's a great lesson in prizing quality as well as cost. (Fast Company.)
  • At Patagonia, an outdoor-sports apparel company in Ventura, California, customer storytellers surf at the "Point," right outside the front door of headquarters. Founder Yvon Chouinard, who spends at least six months a year at the ends of the earth testing his company's gear himself, has made a point of hiring several of these customers so they could share their war stories in-house. He refers to them affectionately as his "dirtbags," people who spend so much time outside that it shows under their fingernails.
  • Honest Tea in Bethesda, Md., is a purveyor of loose and bagged teas. It differentiates itself by exploring its roots at its web site. The "Our Story" section of the site describes how the company came up with the idea and started the business. "We know from our market research that people want to know more than just about a product, they want to know about the story of the company," says co-founder Seth Goldman.
  • A positive example of corporate story telling is one where the head of British Airlines took over a few years ago. One of the first things he did was go to the airport and take a flight. The first-class area was full and the reservations staff was going to move someone out of first class to give him a seat. He said, "No, no. These are people that have paid for tickets. Give me whatever's available." The only available seat was one in the last row that did not even recline. He took it. The former CEO would never have done something like that. When he was on board, the flight attendant rushed back to him with magazines and said, "Well, we've got a few magazines." The CEO said, "Give it to the paying customers first. If there's anything left, I'll take it at the end." Of course, there was nothing left. That story went through the company in seconds. It was recounted over and over as if it had happened last week. What kind of message does that give? Obviously, that the customer comes first. This story accentuated all of the communications the company was doing.

How To Tell Stories

Here are some guidelines from Stephen Denning who is with the Storytelling Foundation International.

Stories should be told from the perspective of a single protagonist.
Stories with multiple protagonists are more difficult to win sympathy for than stories with a single protagonist.

The story should have a degree of strangeness or incongruity for the listeners.
The story must, in a sense, violate the listener's perceptual frameworks in some way. It should arouse their curiosity.

The story must not only be strange, but also eerily familiar.
If the story is too exotic, it will fail to spring the listeners to a new level of understanding of their own situations.

The story should, to the extent possible, be a true story.
Where the story is true, there is greater credibility that it is worth listening to.

The story should be told as simply and as briefly as possible.

Michael Hattersley, in his Harvard Business Review article The Managerial Art of Telling a Story, offers these guidelines -

Opening Strategies - Getting Their Attention.
Demonstrate that there's a defining value at stake. Begin with a vivid concrete image. Avoid too much detail or you will lose your readers. Put the familiar in a new light. By creating a new perception of the situation, you signal that you're setting out on an adventure that the audience should want to join.

Building Strategies - Holding Their Attention
Convey a clear sense of direction. Once you've defined the central thrust of your argument, identify the issues you'll need to cover to reach a conclusion.

  • Overcome obstacles - confronting and then overcoming obstacles to the achievement of your common goal can inject the excitement of an adventure story;
  • Maintain suspense - by vividly defining the challenge to be met, you can generate suspense about how it can be resolved.
  • Portray character in action - audiences usually identify more with people than they do with abstract ideas, which means that sometimes it's most effective to describe a proposal or situation in terms of its effect on a particular individual

Concluding Strategies - Driving the Point Home
A successful conclusion feels expected, complete and inevitable.

  • Respect the audience's expectations - make sure you've condensed your argument into the minimum number of words possible without wandering or being too abrupt.
  • Draw the lesson or moral - when your audience realizes you're about to finish, their attention level goes up. Take advantage of heightened audience attention to drive your main point home, preferably in language as vivid as you used in the beginning.
  • Point to the next steps - most business communications carry with them a call to action. Once you've convinced an audience of the merits of your proposal, outline for it the specific actions necessary to reach what, by now, should be your common goal.

These are guidelines are meant to get you started. Not all stories will need to cover each guideline item but expect that any effective story will need cover the majority of these guidelines. Perhaps one more guideline should be added - have fun writing your stories.

Here is a story telling technique that you might want to use at your next group meeting. I found it on Fast Company Magazine's website - thanks to Michael Buschmohle Here's a four-part formula for telling or analyzing stories.

1) Somebody...(a person, actor, group)
2) wanted...(what this person sought, desired, yearned for)
3) but...(complication, obstacle, conflict)
4) so...(resolution, climax, outcome, learning)

This makes a great learning tool in a group: ask one person to create a "somebody," next person add a "wanted," and so on. Lively stories and high energy emerge.

Some final thoughts - before human beings settled into farms and cities, and began lives of relative predictability, they gathered at night around campfires and told stories. Through those stories they learned from one another. They learned the signs that might tell them where the game hid, they learned of places where roots and tubers might grow, they learned where fresh water was to be found and where honey bees hid. And they learned, as well, of triumphing through cunning and courage, or sacrifices made by parents for children, of the power of love, of overcoming fear.

Millennia later we find ourselves in the era of the New Economy. We struggle with complex work and life issues. Telling stories is once again a powerful technique to help us cope.

About Ed Konczal
I spent most of my career working in a large Fortune 100 company. There were office politics, meetings, report writing, presentations good and bad bosses. My career started with a newly minted MBA. I even completed a course with Professor Peter Drucker. Little did I know that my management and leadership training was just beginning.

I had the opportunity to work with people up and down the old corporate organizational chart from dynamic and innovative clerks to bumbling, ineffective VPs and CEOs. I tried to eliminate bureaucracy when and where I could and help executives recognize that people are their greatest assets -- interesting that these are now attributes of the New Economy.

I consider myself fortunate to have met and worked with some great people. Currently, I am co-founder of Vital Relationships (formerly Generation 2000 InSite) Management Consultants (www.g2insite.com). This article is one of many other stories that my partner Jeannette Galvanek and I have written as part of our forthcoming e-book Simple Stories For Leadership Insights.

Contact Ed Konczal by e-mail at ekonczal@g2insite.com .

Also by Ed Konczal - Leadership By Not Getting In The Way | More on Creative Leadership and Executive Performance in The CEO Refresher Archives


Copyright 2002 by Ed Konczal. All rights reserved.

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