I love a good story. Perhaps because like so many people, I draw inspiration when I can relate to the characters and the choices they make, especially if the story is true and it’s about overcoming challenges, charting a new course or helping others.
Stories have an intrinsic link to human behavior. The benefit of oral tradition is well known among early civilizations, but if you count the millions of videos and posts to Facebook, Twitter and YouTube today, it’s easy to see the connection people seek as a means to relate to others.
Dr. Paul Zak, the director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies at Claremont Graduate University, conducted an experiment that showed test subjects a fictional video of a father describing the challenges of having a son with a fatal brain tumor. After watching the video, half the test subjects chose to donate a portion of their earnings from the experiment to a childhood cancer charity. This is an extreme case, but it demonstrates the point that a story can — and does — influence behavior.
History is filled with great leaders who harnessed the power of storytelling to win-over followers and permit a greater amount of people to understand and subscribe to their views. One of my favorite stories is about Mahatma Gandhi and “Breaking the Sugar Habit”.
In the 1930’s there was a young boy obsessed with eating sugar and his mother grew increasingly concerned for his health. Despite her best efforts, she could not break her son of his habit. Frustrated, she decided to take her son to see his idol, Mahatma Gandhi, hoping he could steer her son away from sugar.
The trip to see Gandhi was arduous. The mother and son walked for miles under a hot sun. Once they reached him the mother asked, “Bapu, my son eats too much sugar. It is not good for his health. Would you please advise him to stop eating it? ”
Gandhi listened to the woman carefully, thought for a while and replied, “Please come back in three days. I will talk to your son then.”
Confused, the mother took her boy home and, after three days, walked back to Gandhi in the scorching heat. This time Gandhi looked directly at the boy and said, “You should stop eating sugar. It is not good for your health.” The boy agreed and promised to end his sugar habit.
Again confused, the mother asked Gandhi, “Bapu, why didn’t you just tell him that three days ago when I brought him here to see you?”
Gandhi smiled and said, “I was not qualified to advise the boy. At that time, I too was eating lots of sugar.”
Gandhi’s message: First, you be the change you want to see in this world.
From a leadership perspective, stories (and quotes) can serve an organization in many ways. A story can help break down complex ideas into easily understood themes, thus allowing more people — regardless of their rank or position — to relate to a particular thought or point. This is especially true when the message is outside the wheelhouse of those who must contribute to it. When people can relate they are more likely to adopt the spirit of the communication and contribute with alacrity.
Stories also help leaders structure the culture they want to promote. Imagine a new CEO arriving at a company and on her first day she calls a town hall meeting. Many of the company employees know nothing about this new CEO, but are anxious to learn “what they are in for”. The CEO begins the assembly by telling one of her favorite stories that provides her with inspiration. It’s from a book by Edgar Schein called “Organisational Culture and Leadership” that articulates the leadership style of Thomas Watson Jr., the IBM CEO from 1956- 1971.
A young executive made some bad decisions that cost the company several million dollars. He was summoned to Watson’s office, fully expecting to be dismissed. As he entered the office, the young executive said, “I suppose after that set of mistakes you will want to fire me.” Watson was said to have replied, “Not at all, young man, we have just spent a couple of million dollars educating you.”
The CEO tells her audience that she will try to exemplify Thomas Watson’s leadership style every day. She then ends the meeting and sends the employees back to work.
If you were in this audience, and knew nothing about the new CEO except this story she draws inspiration from, what impression of her would you take back to your desk?
Without as much as a single slide in a PowerPoint presentation, this CEO send a message that could ripple throughout the company. She left the audience more likely to stop speculating about her style and more likely to focus on their work.
Leaders must recognize that people interpret based on their own experiences. This means a single presentation is unlikely to inspire the same message or motivation to all. Therefore, leaders must find alternative means to reach the hearts and minds of their diverse audience. Storytelling is a great way to accomplish this.
It remains the responsibility of a leader to attract followers who will take a journey while supporting the spirit of not just what to accomplish, but how to accomplish it. Stories can help leaders drive employee performance and set guiding principles that serve as a beacon for decision making and judgement.
A Native American proverb says:
“Tell me the facts and I learn
Tell me the truth and I believe
But tell me a story and it will live in my heart forever”
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