Lead Me with a Story

I grew up in an age of flannel-graph, puppets, and full color Sunday school art.  I knew stores of Noah and the flood, David killing Goliath, and Daniels in the lions’ den at a young age.  I could recount Samson’s strength, Moses leading the children of Israel, or Paul’s missionary journeys before I was proficient in math. 

Later, when our kids were young, every night was a request to read a story.  Sometimes it was from the Bible.  Other times it was Chester the Horse, or the classic, Peanut Butter Rhino.  My kids’ eyes used to light up as we flipped through the pages of the various tales.  I imagine that any parent experiences the same with their children.

This week, I was on the road visiting some commercial staff at a credit union.  The CEO, who has led his CU to an incredible growth, popped in the office and began to recount several stories on the golf course with prospects who are now members at the credit union.  The tales that he spun stayed with me for hours as I traveled down the road to my next stop.  I began to wonder why things were this way.  Why of all the things about the visit, the stories were the ones which stood out in my mind?

We are created as a narrative creature.  One thing that sets us apart from other animals is our part as keepers of stories.  If you note, most times you get together with a close friend that you have not seen in a bit, most of the time is taken with updates of life in the form of stories.  We cannot explain who we are without telling stories. 

The most important truths come alive with stories.  One of the older guys I have taught agricultural lending classes with is an incredible story teller.  I have found that explaining a facet of commercial lending, sinks in further with the hearer if I can dig up a story from the past.  I will have people recall the concept through a story than if I were to just cite various facts and figures.

Good leadership requires good storytelling.  Faithful leadership requires proper keeping and narrating stories that will help identify and execute the mission of the people he leads.  The strong leader will also know how her story fits into the larger story.  Many consultants focus on the importance of organizational mission, values, and vision, but these very important concepts mean very little unless there is a story of why we are doing what we are doing in the first place.  You start with the story and the rest follows. 

I am a history buff and have a minor in US history in college.  The reason I found this so interesting was a professor I had who was an excellent story-teller.  I could sit in his class for hours as he spun yarns about various events, people, and trends in history.  In fact, one of the biggest factors in selecting my major of economics, was because I had an Econ 101 teacher who was a great story teller and would could make the concepts of economics come alive. 

When I think of strong presidential leadership, the ones who could start with a story and end with action are often the ones who have made the most difference in our nation’s history.  Our most effective national leaders were masters in helping citizens identify with stories and lead others to do the same.  They then used this to rally the nation to a cause with the story being central.  I think of the fireside radio chats of Franklin Roosevelt, or the great Ronald Reagan standing in West Berlin asking for the walls to be torn down. 

Leadership that matters grows out of the leader’s own belief that the story is true, that it matters, and that it must grow and continue. The credible leader is based upon the leader’s identification of his or her story within the organization’s story.   Leadership that is disconnected from the story will often have no one following or worse yet, led to nowhere. 

In World War II, Winston Churchill rallied the British people when they were at their greatest crisis.  He told them of their history, how they were part of a centuries’ old civilization, of duty and sacrifice, how liberty was worth fighting for and how the right moral cause the British had in their struggle.  At the same time, in Germany, a very different story emerged.  Hitler told of great conquest, racial superiority, and elimination of any ideas that did not advance the German interest as he saw it.  Churchill’s story was true, Hitler’s was a lie, and the future of history was based upon which story prevailed. 

For those of you who lead, consider your story, and the story of your organization.  Do you know and understand your story and that of your group?  How well are you keeping the story?  How well are you telling this and living the story?  Success and positive leadership growth in your position and in life itself is based upon how well you are immersed and articulate the story.