Breaking out of self-defeating narratives
Over the last decade we've had villainous leaders who have brought us "shock and awe," Axes of Evil, greed, corruption, fiscal mismanagement, soaring international debt, destructive political partisanship, Enron, Worldcom, and AIG. These stories are embedded in our public consciousness and over time they become our reality, a collective tale of the power of leadership at work in our lives -- for the worse.
We're in a cultural, as much as an economic, recession, and this narrative often includes themes like, "Others are to blame" or, "There's nothing I can do about it," or "That's just the way things are." The recession happened, and we're all victims.
But while powerful forces are at work in the world around us, we deceive ourselves if we fail to recognize that each of us plays a role in constructing this reality. We also deceive ourselves by thinking the current story of our world condition is the only possible scenario. If we simply preserve the status quo, we deserve to be vilified by our children.
Here's my advice for shedding the narrative of cultural malaise and finding the narrative you want to inhabit.
Raise your sights. During this series I've invited you to concentrate on the narratives you want to tell in your business, the stories you want your people to create, and those that will uncover new alignment in your company. Cumulatively, this will have a sizeable impact.
Now look beyond that for a moment. Imagine you could influence positive change in the world over the coming decade. How can we influence something larger than just ourselves or our businesses? How can each of us play a part in creating a new reality? Can stories be powerful instruments for change?
In other words, what's the story we want to craft versus the story we must live with?
Meeting the moment. Just as 9/11 was a defining moment, the world after the recession of '09 will never be the same. This is a critical juncture. And while the challenges are huge, I prefer to call this moment a creative juncture because of the many possibilities open to us all.
This is precisely the moment to examine and articulate your personal values and principles, and incorporate them in new narratives about your business.
Feed your imagination. Clif Bar Founder Gary Erickson faced a critical moment when the dominant story about his company was that it would never become successful without a buyout to enable him to scale the business and pay off his crippling debt. At the last minute, Erickson rejected that doomsday scenario, challenging the conventional wisdom.
He began by asking himself two questions: "Why does Clif Bar exist?" and "What are our reasons for being?" Very different questions than just how to maximize profit and shareholder value, but they had foundational meaning for him and his people. Answering these questions guided them all towards shaping a new narrative going forward -- one based on impact and the company's core values: the ability to sustain its brands, business, people, community, and planet. Outsiders called him crazy, but now that he's a success, he's called "inspirational".
Or take your lead from Body Shop founder Anita Roddick whose business and campaigning were both founded on the power of stories. Anita's core questions included: "Why waste a container when you can refill it?" "Why buy more of something than you need?" She combined this approach with a belief that businesses have the power to do good and she used her stores and products to communicate human rights and environmental issues.
After stepping down as co-chairman of the firm in 2002, Roddick spent most of her time advancing important causes and campaigns against human rights abuses and the exploitation of the underprivileged. She founded charitable organizations, spoke at conferences worldwide and participated in think tank councils. In her book, "Business As Unusual" she advocated that every business had a story which could both attract customers and influence positive change in the world. "If you think you're too small to have an impact, try going to sleep with a mosquito in the room."
Our legacies are built upon the stories we tell, not the quotas we meet. In the words of the Celtic musician and storyteller Charles de Lint, "We're all made of stories. When they finally put us underground, the stories are what will go on. It's a kind of immortality..."
If an energy bar business or a cosmetics shop can be a platform to improve lives, then so can yours. What new steps can you take and how can your business become a force for change?
Ask yourself and your team these questions:
1. Beyond the service you provide, what can your business be a platform for?
2. What impact do you want your company to have in the world?
3. What stories do you want people to tell about your company when you're gone?
Finding the answer may be the first step in creating a new and better narrative for yourself and those you lead.
Read the previous postings in this series on storytelling:
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