My earliest memories of having heard stories were when I was a small boy and my mother used to tell me, my brother and sister tales from the Indian epics Ramayana and the Mahabharata. My grandfather who I started having conversations with when I was a little older was a great story teller too and being a professor of English, he had the felicity of the language as well. He laced his stories with quiet dry humour and his many tales of his teaching days had me enthralled for hours. When I started reading, I graduated to the illustrated books on these classics and from there on, my reading journey started. However, the charm of listening to those and many other stories from my mother will never fade. I did the same with my elder daughter and she grew up on books later. These days, storytelling seems to be a lost art. With both parents working, children today rarely get to hear stories, unless grandparents live with them, which again is a rarity. When I talk to young people these days, they are not aware of the characters in those great epics or even historical figures or for that matter great authors or poets. When I look back, I realize that a lot of my beliefs and values were shaped from the characters in those stories I heard in my childhood.
Just as storytelling is important is shaping the character of children, I believe it plays a vital role in defining the culture of organizations as well. Stories that promoters tell their first recruits and the senior people, stories that managers tell their team members can galvanize teams to work for a common purpose and fosters a bond that causes them to help each other in situations of crisis. The story telling, however has to have a context and an objective else it will merely be a source of entertainment, which in itself is not bad but when coupled with learning, the impact is tremendous. In his book “The Leader’s Guide to Storytelling”, Stephen Denning talks about the importance of storytelling in motivating people, building trust, building brands, communicating values and vision and for teamwork and narrates examples of business leaders succeeding or failing or presidential candidates losing elections because of the stories they told.
When I look back at all the managers and peers I have worked with, the people who come to mind immediately are those that told good stories to gently goad people into action. There were, of course the left brained “facts and figures” men (I am one too, by training), who at best were perfectionists, great at their jobs but hardly inspiring or worthy of emulating. I am not trivializing the importance of facts and figures. They are the lifeblood of business, but while numbers work on the head, stories capture the imagination of people and if numbers are complemented with stories, a compelling case is made.
Milton Erickson, the father of modern hypnotherapy used stories or what is otherwise called ‘metaphors’ in treating his patients. Instead of telling his patients what to do, Erickson would let the person get the message from the stories he told them, as if they had figured out the solution on their own. One such incident, narrated by Sidney Rosen in his book “My Voice Will Go with You – The Teaching Tales of Milton Erickson” goes as follows – An alcoholic who came to Erickson seemed a hopeless case. His parents were alcoholics, his grandparents on both sides were drinkers and even his wife and brother were alcoholics. Erickson could have sent the man to Alcoholics Anonymous, but given his environment – he worked on newspapers, which he said encouraged a hard drinking lifestyle – he thought he would try something different. Erickson asked the man to go the local botanical gardens and sit and just contemplate the cactus plants, which “could go for three years without water and not die”. Many years later the man’s daughter contacted Erickson, and told him that after the ‘cactus treatment’ both her father and mother had stayed sober. The image of a flourishing cactus needing little ‘drink’ had obviously been a powerful one.
So, leaders, start telling stories to the people who work with you, to your children, to your friends, to business colleagues, from the heart, in a conversational style. And watch the magic happen. It may not make all your challenges go away but it sure is a great way to lead.
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