I've been thinking about stories and business leadership lately. My friend Dave Krueger talks about the power of "old stories" that keep us mired in ineffective behaviors. The Slow Leadership blog wrote last week of how old stories can lead us to make poor decisions. And most recently, Harry and Christine Beckwith's book, You, Inc.: The Art of Selling Yourself, reminded me of the teaching power of stories.
Stories have power because they reach both head and heart. Dave Krueger reminds us that "a placebo is just an inert pill plus a story." The vivid story is what makes the placebo work. Because stories can have such a strong emotional pull, we want to use them well - and in the right situations.
When good stories go bad
Old stories, in particular, can be harmful. Think of the North American automobile industry, for example. Some, but not all, of the decline of that industry is due to the persistence of old stories: "Americans want big cars," and "Cheap gas means Americans don't care for fuel economy," and "We have plenty of money, so let's placate the unions with big pension plans."
Or have a look at the North American airline industry. Decades ago, a new story was invented, a story that taught that flying a bunch of airplanes into a few hub cities, rushing passengers to connections, and flying away was the best way to make a profit. That story worked for awhile. It doesn't anymore. But many of our airline companies are so stuck in the old story they can't find a way out.
Old stories can blind us to new ideas. I grew up during the Vietnam war. One of my personal old stories is about an incompetent military (for so it seemed in those days). The military is no longer incompetent. In fact, there are many leadership lessons to be learned there. I've referred here to After Action Reviews, the NCO creed and other lessons from the military. But that old story persists in my mind, which means that I have to hear about something good several times before it finally sinks in.
Stories too often masquerade as proof. When stories and anecdotes are used to "prove" an idea, they can lead us to make changes that just don't make sense.
When good stories are great
Stories do have a place in your arsenal of leadership tools, though. Stories can help you build understanding and commitment to a new direction. Stories can help your customers see (and feel) how working with you will make their lives better. Stories can plant seeds that flower into innovative ideas and actions. And stories can help us drive our own personal change, by helping us see and feel clearly where and who we want to be.
How to tell stories
Good stories are simple, real, relevant to the listener, include emotions, and use all five senses. The Beckwiths tell us that every story has a hero with whom the audience can identify, a serious challenge, and the hero's dealing with that challenge. A good storyteller does not feed "the moral of the story" to her listeners, but leaves it to them to work out.
The Beckwith's book has a few ideas for telling great stories, on pages 80 through 89. If you want more, though, I'd recommend Stephen Denning's masterful book, The Leader's Guide to Storytelling: Mastering the Art and Discipline of Business Narrative.
[photo downloaded from Microsoft's on line clip-art site.]