Leadership Focus

The Challenge . . .

Have you ever noticed that some of the most pleasurable and rewarding experiences in life arise out of very simple actions?  It doesn’t always take technology, social complexities, intricate relationships or convoluted processes to give us a ‘rush’ although we are increasingly immersed in such complications these days.

It can be the vision of a sunset, a smile from a stranger, sharing a laugh with a good friend, savoring a taste sensation, or reliving a sweet memory that will make our day. It can also happen when we’re engrossed in a story.

I recalled a number of personal events of this type recently when I was mulling over a challenge presented by a business colleague who had asked for my ideas on how to exert what he called ‘real’ leadership influence. His situation was not rare nor was it an unusual one; in fact, he stated that it happened almost daily; yet despite the high impact and frequency he was still seeking an effective response strategy.

"Just how do you successfully compete for people’s attention when they’re continuously diverted by sexy technology, overwhelming information and multiple options at every turn?” he asked. He reminded me of my own definition of what a leader is supposed to do – focus the desire for change that’s resident in others and then facilitate the creation/emergence of a sustainable new reality.

"These days, it’s impossible to get people to focus on what’s needed for the organization when they are inundated with competing ideas from all over!” he asserted. "Every time I bring up a new idea my ‘whiz kids’ reply with endless other options which they get off the Internet or from other sources and I‘m overwhelmed with counter-proposals and speculative arguments!”

"I’m supposed to focus them but they end up confusing me! I’m bogged down with complicated situations that fuel endless conversations and I’m moving nowhere. How am I supposed to rise above all this?”

It was a worthy question and I agreed with him that it’s probably an experience shared by many frustrated leaders and managers. There has to be an answer, so I went to my never-failing source of wisdom for an answer – my sainted Scottish Aunt, Eva.

The Power to Move . . .

It was one of her most profound statements to me: "Laddie, I’ll likely forget whatever ye tell me; I’ll even forget what ye do; but I’ll never, ever forget how you make me feel!”  I remember the situation so clearly – I’d been in a physical fight with a fellow student at school just before half-term. He’d been harassing and bullying me for some weeks simply because he was bigger than me and he could. It gave him great satisfaction to witness my frustration and discomfort.

Finally, I reached my limit and I’d hit him (where it hurts most) as he’d tried to twist my arm deliberately during a rugby practice. He’d given me a black-eye and I’d given back in kind! I’d arrived at my aunt’s home sporting this ‘shiner’ knowing that she would heartily disapprove of my physical response and perhaps be disappointed at my lack of self control. To my surprise she down-played the incident and then told me she was proud of me for standing up to the bullying.

This, of course, had nothing to do with the current situation except that I was reminded that most significant interactions between people involve emotions. My colleague needed to find a way to reach his staff at an emotional level. When I shared this observation with Robert, my colleague, he immediately said, "That’s not me! I don’t get emotional if I can help it and that’s not going to change”

I pointed out that it wasn’t him that was required to experience the emotion and no one had to actually display it – just use it. He was perplexed. "I don’t understand,” he responded, "how can you do that? I don’t think that’s a skill set I could, or would even want to master”.

"You already have” I said, "it’s the ability to tell a story.”

If you’d care to reflect on the impact that stories had, and continue to have, on your understanding of the world around you, you’ll know exactly what I mean. Stories are many things – they entertain, distract, shock and surprise, inform, excite, stimulate and amuse us – among many other things.

We’re addicted to them and have been ever since we first heard them from our mother when as very young children we first learned to make sense out of a confusing world. Stories offered us patterns or templates that made us feel integrated, competent, confident and above all, safe.

There are facts in stories for sure but these are often the least important aspect and many, if not most, can be incredible. Somehow, factual accuracy doesn’t seem to be so important as long as it doesn’t distract us from the point of the story. The vital element usually resides in the way in which the story challenges current expectations and beliefs and it’s emotional. In this manner, stories can stretch our awareness, our perspectives and perceptions.

We rarely, if ever, walk away from a story without feeling differently about things.  It doesn’t need to be elaborate or even substantial; it doesn’t have to be ‘true’ or defensible. It just has to alter the way we anticipate  and experience realities – the beginning of every learning experience.

So a story has the power to stimulate our feelings, our emotions, and it’s this that makes them memorable. If I were to begin a conversation with you with the words "Once upon a time . . .” would I have your attention and would your memory already begin to anticipate something familiar yet engaging?

Making It Work . . .

Now I’m not suggesting that you begin running a nursery school; as we grow and develop so our story forms become more sophisticated and subtle. A story in business is a holistic communication device to translate ideas in a simple, compelling form and yet can be contained in as little as three short sentences. Stories can be disguised as a personal account, paraded as an analogy, a recalled memory or parallel experience, or as justification for an opinion or position on an issue. Business stories do not often start with the words, "Once upon a time . . . "

Stories don’t need to follow any form in order to have the desired impact although they often describe a situation, a course of action and an outcome. They convey facts and feelings within an established context and so stimulate and/or promote learning. They are usually practical and tangible and this contributes, together with the emotional component, to memorability.

They often describe the ‘why’ and the ‘how’ in a situation much better than abstract approaches. In addition, they will often lead directly to possible action, highlight the human elements, facilitate bonds between disparate groups and achieve all this in a light and entertaining way.

Their main purpose is to move the focus of attention away from you or the situation at hand and into the personal world of the listener. When this happens the listener is free to engage his/ her own private memory banks, life experiences and personal emotions – places where outsiders would not be welcome.

So, a story is a passport that allows the listener’s mind to travel to unfamiliar places in safety. The story is no longer  ‘yours’ or part of a situation; it rapidly becomes an intensely personal experience for the listener, evoking emotions and thoughts that do not have to be made public. Regardless, they’ll still be remembered and often will change the way the listener approaches his or her future.

I use stories very frequently in my coaching and teaching roles. It doesn’t matter who my audience might be – preschoolers or board members, educated mavens or simple, practical folk – they’ll all relate to the technique in a positive and constructive way. I’ve yet to see anyone roll their eyes when I ask, "May I tell you a story . . .?” And yes, I usually ask for permission.

I am obliged to follow some basic rules, of course; I may not

  • use a story that doesn’t have a simple, related point to the topic at hand
  • abuse the time and other resources available
  • tell a story that disrespects or reflects negatively on my listeners(s)
  • engage political, religious or prurient themes
  • employ language or expressions that are distracting in themselves, or
  • use stories for self promotion.

These are six simple and straightforward guidelines that will keep you on track and out of trouble; there could be a few others that you could add to your repertoire as you gain momentum. As an example, I prefer to avoid the use of jokes since they’re so available on the internet these days and they can back-fire so easily; others however can use them with great effectiveness.

A Treasure Trove . . .

Remember that the primary strategy is to transfer the focus of attention from you and the situation to the private reality of the listener; anything that accomplishes this within the six rules is fair game. So where might you look to find appropriate inspiration for your stories?

Some of my favorite places are self-evident. Among many other sources, I’ve used:

  • Personal experiences and memories
  • Other people’s experiences and memories
  • Published writings, film and television
  • Photographs and other works of art
  • Fables and anecdotes
  • Items in nature.

As previously mentioned, most stories are simple, personal, tangible and relate to real experiences; they describe a situation, an action or actions and an outcome. On top of this there’s a clear protagonist and one or more antagonists – just to stimulate and engage the emotional reactions of the listener. That’s it!

When I put a story together, I begin with the point I’m attempting to make clearly in mind; then I trace the feelings that would likely have an impact on others’ perspectives. As an example, when I want to draw a clear distinction between intelligence and wisdom I could use an academic or conceptual approach (and likely lose my audience) or I could tell a personal story about a situation when I had a ‘flash of insight and situational awareness’. The story that fits so well for me in this case is when I learned that you can catch a trout by knowing about fish and their habits (discovering how to tickle trout) much more readily than learning about fishing rods.

It isn’t rocket science but it does take some thought and careful preparation; I had to learn not to rush into a story without first thinking about the point I wanted to make, my audience and their reality, and how to get the point across elegantly. It took some practice but I can now rely on my stories to convey my messages while my audiences both enjoy the telling and, more importantly, they own the conclusions they draw from the experience.

Since we’re all different, there will always be stories to share; I have heard some stories many times over and yet I rarely pass up the opportunity to hear them again. Some, like gold, seem to get better with every refinement. Also, stories are ‘common currency’, acceptable almost everywhere and a sound basis for trade. The more I trade with another person the stronger the relationship becomes – and that can’t be bad!

The Bottom Line . . .

Robert took the message to heart and worked on a few selected stories. When I spoke with him last week and raised the topic, he looked at me sideways and said, "Oh that! I guess it’s not the problem I thought it was. Anyway, I don’t seem to be having so many difficulties now”.

I didn’t pursue the issue then but in a few months perhaps I’ll get him to tell me a story about how he reaches his people amidst the noise of technology, complex and fast-moving change scenarios and competing ideas.

But that will be another story!


I’d welcome your questions, comments and suggestions. We can all learn through dialogue and your viewpoints will undoubtedly gain more value when shared. Please contact me at david@andros.org.