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Storytelling for Leaders

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Storytelling is a powerful communication tool that marketing and advertising professionals use very skillfully to promote their companies' products or services. But did you know that stories are also effective as a leadership tool?

Many of the most admired US companies have for years used stories to convey values, vision and behaviors that lead to success.

For example, Nike employees have heard for years that their company owes its existence to a track coach and a waffle iron. Workers at Armstrong International know a round of golf once cost their CEO $248,000. And employees at Medtronic are brought to tears when they hear about a man with Parkinson's disease whose life was transformed by their company's technology.

Great leaders know that workers need more than lofty mission statements and industry buzz words. To understand and appreciate what their organization stands for, workers need to hear about its people, its values and its history.

So smart leaders tell stories. They periodically gather the “tribe” around the corporate campfire (the boardroom, annual meeting, holiday events, etc.) to recall their legends and share new tales. By touching the hearts as well as the minds of their employees, customers, and stakeholders, they leave a legacy of experiences that inspire generations.


Stories Hit Home

“All you can do is relate the successful experiences you've had within the company,” says Jim Sinegal, cofounder, president and CEO of Costco Wholesale. “What else have we got besides stories? That's what really hits home with people; it's what brings meaning to the work we do. And when you have real examples, like our success in selling Calvin Klein jeans, that's what resonates.”

“A picture is worth a thousand words, and a story told appropriately is priceless,” Sinegal adds. “Telling one of our own stories speaks volumes about our philosophy and our values.”

As the Costco story and others demonstrate, the companies that last are the ones with visionary leaders who clearly articulate the organization's values—the bedrock of the corporate culture.

Storytelling is a proven tool for reinforcing vision and values and communicating the practices and behaviors that lead to success. A consistently well-told corporate legend is the common thread among companies that succeed over time, diverse though their products and services may be.

Stories help us achieve a myriad communication goals. And because they touch us deeply, they stay with us. Each time we share a story, we expand, deepen and enhance our connections with our families, friends, communities and organizations.

The Need for High Touch

We need stronger connections today, perhaps more than ever before. Our highly mobile, fast-moving, technology-driven culture gives us instant and continuous access to each other, but we're often not truly connected. Instead of speaking face-to-face, coworkers in nearby cubicles, next-door neighbors and often even family and friends opt for the greater efficiency of email or instant messages. But these “conveniences” isolate us from one another.

Telecommuting and home-based businesses add to our isolation because growing numbers of us have no one to interact with. Even in offices filled with people, we are so busy that the daily rituals of our past—sharing a coffee break, chatting at the water cooler, taking a few minutes to greet each other before a meeting—have been lost.

Joseph Campbell reminds us in The Power of Myth, “When you lose rituals, you lose a sense of civilization; that's why our society is so out of kilter.”

As Judy Wicks, founder, president, and maître d' of Philadelphia's White Dog Café so eloquently says, “People in our society hunger…to share their values, to enjoy a sense of community, and to be part of something that is larger than themselves.”

Work Teams as Families

Given our common longing for increased connection, coworkers, managers, and even organizations have become “extended family.” Leaders who regularly use stories create a culture in which people feel connected with other members of the “family,” and that gives their employees' work purpose.

When executives and managers share tales about their own career challenges and failures, or relate how the company survived a crisis, overwhelmed employees take hope that they will also be able to tough it out. When leaders tell their teams how others have succeeded in solving difficult problems, employees gain confidence and motivation to carry on.

An example of someone “caught doing something right” is easy to grasp and easy to apply. And when desired behaviors and individual roles are clear, people work together better and serve customers more effectively.

Futurist Rolf Jensen predicts, “Companies will thrive on the basis of their stories and myths—on their ability to create products and services that evoke emotion.”

How about your organization? Is it honoring its legends? Are your leaders touching people's minds and hearts? Are your leaders sharing the stories that will create the future they envision?


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Evelyn Clark is a professional speaker, retreat facilitator and communication consultant. She is also the author of Around the Corporate Campfire. Reach her at corp.story@verizon.net.

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