We all tell ourselves stories. We tell stories about how we met certain people. We tell stories about the idiosyncrasies we’ve acquired. We tell stories because stories help us give meaning to the events of our lives.
Some people don’t like to think about life as a story because stories don’t seem real. They equate story with fiction. That’s too bad. I’m finding the best lives are often filled with the best stories.
I’ve noticed whenever we encounter a situation that doesn’t seem to have a story attached to it, we will make one up. We’re good at making up stories.
For example, let’s say I’m driving down the highway and someone cuts across three lanes of traffic and speeds off down the off ramp. They nearly knock me off the road with their sudden lane change. As I straighten out my vehicle, I begin to formulate a story about the other driver. Typically, every story I come up with in this situation will begin with the word: JERK!
But let’s say I later discover that the driver and his pregnant wife are in that car and she just discovered her water broke. Since it’s their first child, he is a nervous, soon-to-be-dad and his only goal right now is “get to the hospital.”
The incident is the same, but it happens in the context of a different story. As I tell that story, it begins with the words: Good Luck!
As a leader, you need to be aware of the different narratives (fancy word for story) that are at work on your team or in your organization. You always run the risk of competing narratives on any team. The same incident occurs but people walk away from it telling different stories.
Here are some of the practical ways I’ve learned to lead others within the context of a consistent and meaningful narrative.
1. Tell the story you want told.
As the leader, you have the opportunity to tell the story that makes the purpose and actions of the team significant. People want to know they are a part of something meaningful and worthwhile. The stories you tell about their work and it’s connection to the vision and outcomes of the organization is crucial. If you don’t tell the story then people will begin to make up their own.
Apple has a very committed following of both employees and consumers for a lot of reasons. One of those reasons is they have figured out how to tell a great story about who they are. I recently came across a letter that Apple apparently gives to each new employee on his or her first day. The letter says the following:
There’s work and there’s your life’s work.
The kind of work that has your fingerprints all over it. The kind of work that you’d never compromise on. That you’d sacrifice a weekend for. You can do that kind of work at Apple. People don’t come here to play it safe. They come here to swim in the deep end.
They want their work to add up to something.
Something big. Something that couldn’t happen anywhere else.
Welcome to Apple.
When I read that (and I’ve read it numerous times) it gives me chills. Now that’s a compelling story.
2. Tell the story consistently and repeatedly.
The best stories are meant to be told time and again. I don’t know how many leaders stand up in front of their team and tell the story, explain the vision, and ascribe meaning to the daily grind each person is about to experience…once. Once is never enough for a great story. I think back to the numerous times I had to watch The Lion King with my kids. They loved the movie because it was a great story. It got to the point where they could recite every line, with the same inflections and accents as the characters. Do the people on your team know the story of the team that well?
Tell it again and again. You’ll know you’ve communicated the story enough when you walk around a corner and see people on the team imitating you word for word (with your hand gestures) telling the story. Until then, tell the story again.
3. Identify conflicting narratives in assumptions and expectations of others.
Like I said earlier in this post, if people don’t know what the true story is, they’ll fill in the blanks with their own story. This comes out in the form of assumptions and expectations. Most of the conflict you will experience on a team flows out of unmet or unclear expectations. Every new member of your team will operate from their own story until they have a chance to learn and buy into the overarching narrative you are telling.
4. A story lived is better than a story told.
A story may feel more like fiction or a fable unless people can see it in action. A leader who tells a story of significant work and meaningful purpose but doesn’t live that story out in front of the other team members will send conflicting messages. If a leader tells a story of a team that took risks but doesn’t allow for or reward those who try to do that, the story you tell will become more like a myth. Stories make sense when the actions of the team members become additional chapters and anecdotes in the stories you tell.
When new employees read the letter from Apple on their first day, they have no doubt they truly are working at a place that does things that “couldn’t happen anywhere else.”
5. Teach others to tell the story well.
Part of the job description of any leader is to develop other leaders. It is your responsibility to raise up others. This means teaching them how to to tell the story, both in words and actions. Of course, they will tell the story a little bit differently then you. They will tell it in their own voice and with their own life. And you can walk away knowing that others are in place and prepared to tell the story after you’re gone.
When I talk about story, I’m not talking about “spin.” Spin is a form of propaganda manufactured to make someone look better or worse through deceitful and manipulative stories. I’m encouraging you to create a narrative within your team or organization that inspires, motivates, and captures the hearts of those involved. I’m hoping you tell true stories that equip others to live better and more connected lives.
What do you think? What kinds of stories do you tell to your team or organization?