Forget about leading if you are not a storyteller




Herb Kelleher, one of the founders and former CEO of Southwest Airlines in the US, while talking to the company investors and employees used to narrate:

 “It is funny that I get letters all the time from shareholders, and they are often angry letters. They say, America West is flying between Los Angeles and Las Vegas for $149 one way and you, Herb Kelleher, at Southwest are pricing the same one way ticket at $79.

Don’t you have the decency to at least kick up your price to $129? Why are you leaving so much on the table! They would ask.

Well, what I do is to write back and reply:

“Thank you so much for your letter. However, you don’t really understand who we are and who our competition is; it is the automobile, it is not other airlines. That is how we price our tickets.”

 The above story was remembered for a long time in how Herb communicated the vision and strategy of Southwest Airlines in a way that no other presentation or speech or a memo could have explained.

 In words of David Gardner, Professor of Education at Harvard, “Stories are more important than memos, mission statements, newsletters, speeches and policy manuals”. Again David Snowden, Director at IBM’s Knowledge Management Institute, in his writing for Fortune magazine mentioned “Nothing serves a leader more than a knack for narrative. Stories anoint role models, impart values, and show how to execute indescribably complex task.”

 Most of us would still remember the bed-time stories that our elders used to tell us, that elevated us to places of our dreams. We might still recall the various incidents, anecdotes and real-life stories that our parents had shared with us during childhood that would have laid down the foundations of our family values, culture, beliefs, background and their vison for the future.

 As we grew older, we started loving those movies that had great stories and captured our imagination. We followed those political leaders who were able to paint a credible picture of a better future. We bought those products and aligned with those ideas that connected with our passion and value system.

Could our workplace have remained far behind when it came to storytelling? In our office life, we find all employees have their own stories and their own version of the Company’s story! If companies don’t share their stories or didn’t allow employees to share theirs, then those stories get posted on ‘Glassdoor’ or ‘JobBuzz’ or other social forums. While presenting, we realize that the true secret of a great presentation is always to build a logical story line around the context. In the boardrooms, leaders across the globe frequently debate on three questions, ‘How did we get here?’, ‘What has enabled our success?’, and most importantly, ‘where do we go from here?’ The stories build on these themes, clarify the ‘bigger picture’ and the company vision, give confidence to the clients and influences employee morale and motivation.

 We all know that the bulk of today’s workforce comprises ‘Millennials’, and leading them requires a significant change in the design, approach and the content of our communication. The millennials today have varied interests, are technologically savvy, make fewer pretenses about what they are interested in and what they are not, show tendency to connect to a larger vision than simply executing orders, don’t really believe in the age old hierarchical system, and demonstrate adeptness in tapping into the power of networks and communities for innovation and execution. For them, leadership is no longer about a hierarchical position as much as it is about an ability to influence and move people to action. Besides, in today’s world, data is very overwhelming and access to information practically engulfs us. It is in this context of ‘changing world of work’ that stories induce attraction of a ‘simpler’ time and a ‘clearer’ message.

 To lead this new ‘Facebook Generation’, leaders of organizations have a complex task at hand. They need to capture the imagination of the people by weaving appropriate words and situations and engaging with the emotions and heart of the people that breathe life into a non-existent world. Simply stated, leaders need to have a ‘storytelling’ competence. As per McKee “… if you can harness imagination and the principles of a well-told story, then you get people rising to their feet amid thunderous applause instead of yawning and ignoring you.”

 Not surprisingly, research shows that in the past two decades, storytelling has re-emerged as the critical social art that is determining the success of the leaders and the organization. Also, ‘narrative’ has become the most powerful way human beings communicate and remember information. Telling a story that exemplifies an essential message is a far more effective communication tool than supporting a message with facts, charts, graphs and any material that lacks emotion and fails to connect on a human level. 

 A story can inspire, motivate, change mind-sets and, most importantly, persuade others to action. You can’t just order people to “be imaginative” or to “get motivated” or to “start loving their job”. But one can certainly lead them there with a good story. One can’t even successfully instruct people to “follow the rules”, since nobody cares to read the rulebook. But people will be eager to listen and assimilate a good story about an employee who broke the rules and got fired, or a woman who inspired her demotivated team to manage a resounding turnaround and got a raise.

 We remember stories long enough than mere statistics. Stories are memorable because they reflect life, are composed of images rather than ideas, emotions rather than facts, and principles rather than cliché phrases.

For understanding the power of stories and why it clicks more with us, we have to see how our brain processes information as compared to a computer. To replicate the human brain with a computer, Artificial Intelligence specialists have been trying to find out how does it actually store and retrieve the immense amounts of information every day, and why and how other information gets discarded. Research indicated that

  1. Our brain does not store information in “files” or folders like the way a word processing computer program does. Rather, information is both “filed” and ‘retrieved’ in its context, as well in the form of stories.
  2. Information is received more in the form of bulleted lists, like a PowerPoint presentation, which the brain sorts as per certain criteria, and discards most of it.
  3. Our brain generally goes by the “recency-primacy effect,” wherein we tend to remember the first and last items in the list, or maybe something which has a powerful emotional impact. The rest gets discarded as “trash,” which is not likely to be retrieved.

Some of the most successful companies in the world have already realized the significance of story-telling in the corporate set-up. They are consciously crafting their strategies to inculcate the skill and values of Story-telling. For example,

  1. Kimberly-Clark, provides two-day seminars to teach its ’13-step’ program for crafting stories and giving presentations.
  2. In 3M, senior leaders use stories to shape and to convey strategic plans. Infact, 3M banned bullet points and replaced them with a process of writing “strategic narratives’.
  3. In Herman Miller, medium of stories is used to communicate their culture and core character values.
  4. P&G hired Hollywood movie directors to teach its senior executives how to lead better with storytelling.
  5. PepsiCo’s senior leader teach this art to the next generation leaders, for building leadership pipeline.
  6. Motorola engage with outside improvisational or theater groups to hone their leaders’ storytelling skills.
  7. Organizations like Microsoft, Motorola, Berkshire Hathaway, Procter & Gamble, NASA, and the World Bank, use storytelling very intentionally as a leadership tool.

Given the above, organizations and leaders aiming for greatness, cannot afford to ignore the power of storytelling, if they have to really engage, motivate and retain their talent, and take their organizations to the next level.

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