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Breaking out of self-defeating narratives

Allen Schoer
Allen Schoer is founder and CEO of The TAI Group, a boutique consulting firm pioneering new directions in executive leadership and organizational change.

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?

Practice time

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:

Uncovering alignment by telling stories

Crafting the irresistible narrative

Mastering the three 'I's' of storytelling

From CEO to chief story teller: Part one, the challenge."

By Allen Schoer  |  January 14, 2010; 10:15 AM ET  | Category:  Communication skills Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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Look, I tried this storytelling stuff and guess what - it works!! I was the biggest doubter but the other day I had a to deal with a critical, or as Mr. Shore calls it, a 'creative' juncture with my team. It was a bit obvious as the Haiti earthquake had just hit the news but to see those people/relief agencies/volunteers etc. never giving up under such dire conditions it made me take a look at how we make excuses for relatively easily solvable problems - the story and the fact that we have it so good over here worked and the team started to look at the issue with new and creative eyes - and amazing things have happened - one of them being a new team spirit/connection - we are really working together now.
So yes, tell those stories - a little 'guilt' also helps!

Posted by: gbritlyon3 | January 17, 2010 12:48 PM

I'm glad to read about the cultural recession Schoer refers to. All the discourse lately is econimic. But there are cultural implications of facing these tough times, both as a country and within an organization. I wouldn't say this is 'self help garbage' (walkerbert above). Its our responsibility as leaders to address the cultural resesssion as we're sweating about making our numbers.

Posted by: simplicity38 | January 15, 2010 3:26 PM

What a challenge Mr. Schoer has given every company. REACH BEYOND. HOW? The first thing that came to my mind, in facing the fact that in today's economic climate, so often there are salary cuts,and less profit so also less money to give away. Why not create a story in any business about everyone coming together with a little bit of money (or time) individually and together it becomes a much larger amount that can make an impact in such a way for any need,(like the Haitian people, for example). What stories employees might have to tell.

What I continue to take away with a new twist is, through new communication choices, let your company know you are human and not just a being in charge of the profit and loss.


I would be interested in hearing from TAI how the ideas presented the last 5 weeks have made an impact on their clients or clients in the future. Our these ideas being expanded on through classes available at TAI right now? It seems to me TAI has the know how to put a new spin on doing business. Now Practice Time.

Posted by: outwest1967 | January 14, 2010 11:33 PM

Sounds like a bunch of self-help garbage, to me, if you want to make money, be successful, and so forth, you still have to study the market, and identify something that people NEED(keyword), and figure out how to provide it, or provide better than your competition, or find a place in that market where you can do something that no one else can, or can do as well. Research. If your business/enterprise isn't doing so hot, it's time for a blank piece of paper, and a pot of coffee, and some quiet time to get creative. Shut the cellphone OFF, shut the door, and weigh out what problems you're having with your business, why you aren't making sales or attracting customers, and what you can do about it, how much it's going to cost, and that kind of thing.

Some businesses are facing bankruptcy for the simple reason that people don't have as much money as they used to, everything already trickled down, and people are hunkered down for the winter.

But, this is 2010, and a key ingredient in any kind of successful venture is a positive attitude, and if not that, then at least an optimistic outlook. Maybe it's time to sell off, and go do something new, either individually, or as a company, but again, it's about trying to do more research, discover who/what is out there, and what's really needed.

Posted by: walkerbert | January 14, 2010 10:01 PM

For years "Life Coaches" have told their individual clients that they can change their lives by changing the story they are telling themselves everyday. Interesting challenge Allen Schoer sets up --actually changing a whole organization this way.

Posted by: marsdenthomas | January 14, 2010 4:44 PM

This all sounds very nice. But it's quite frustrating for me. The whole idea that my business can be a platform for something bigger....in my particular case, I can't see that happening. Which leads me to think that maybe I need to re-examine. And I wonder - if the author or TAI group see this a lot - people who come in to work on one thing and then discover that maybe this changes their whole way of seeing their job. Even themselves.
I, for one, have a lot to think about after reading this.

Posted by: tenten1 | January 14, 2010 4:37 PM

This is the best image ever: "If you think you're too small to have an impact, try going to sleep with a mosquito in the room." I find this positively empowering. I'm always preaching the power of stories; it is the practice that makes the difference.

Posted by: emontops | January 14, 2010 3:48 PM

The questions are an excellent way to look at things differently, perhaps let go of some assumptions that aren't serving, and learn something new. I've been reading the series. This process reminds me of your piece around alignment. I can see it fitting into this exercise as well. However, it's the next step, figuring out how to use the new insights and ideas, how to create the stories--that's the challenge. It's a new year, I am willing to give it a try.

Posted by: scarey2 | January 14, 2010 3:41 PM

Schoer reminds me that one of the essentials of leadership is to frame/re-frame/transform the way we look at things. Perhaps like Erickson at Clif Bar, at a recent board meeting for a not-profit arts organization we had the choice of letting the numbers monopolize the conversation or somehow finding the story to galvanize our stakeholders beyond the immediate snapshot of our fiscal condition. Instead of dissolving into gloom, the meeting left us energized and hopeful -- and is already translating into results -- as we could see that there were more powerful stories to harness and ride than just the one-dimensional story created by a spreadsheet.

Yes, it might be easier for us to find it in the context of the arts than, say, at a widget factory, but I think this is all the more reason for the corporate world to move in this direction: if widgets don’t seem at first to be inspiring on their own, then to survive difficult times and even become a platform to improve lives, the widgets may need all the help they can get. A leader who can mine stories for values and alignment may find ways to access what her people can bring to the table to transform the current reality.

Posted by: MattStern | January 14, 2010 3:30 PM

It's also interesting to think about how a company could shift its whole image by giving its internal stories reality - the pharmaceutical industry for example has a great story about helping people, but its focus for the last few years seems only to be about marketing. That has been at the expense of innovation. Maybe if they listened to their own story, they might be able to innovate again, and we would believe that they really are about helping others.

Posted by: lidavarus | January 14, 2010 3:02 PM

Working for a large organization, it's hard to even ponder questions like how my business can be a force for change. However, I'm inspired to look at what my team and colleagues can do as we look at who we are collectively in the way Mr. Schoer has described in this series.

Posted by: jnyc | January 14, 2010 2:39 PM

I am inspired by Schoer's concepts and I find his questions provocative, especially the third question as it relates to my company (and team's) legacy. But how do I uncover my relevant stories as they relate to my business? I like the idea, but I wouldn't want to try 'storytelling' with my team without practice (too vulnerable). Does The TAI Group offer some courses on this?

Posted by: FTAssociates | January 14, 2010 2:12 PM

What do you do if the stories told about your company always make you look like the bad guy? I'm proud of my own work, and the work my multi-national corporation does, but I get grief from my teenager who hears only negative things about us in the media. He's ashamed to tell people where I work. Do you have any suggestions for an employee like me who wants to tell stories that can counteract a negative rep?

Posted by: vp382 | January 14, 2010 1:27 PM

Just for fun, I wrote the 'practice questions' here on my white board at the office in big block letters. The result has been quite surprising.

Suffice it to say - a spirited discussion about the nature of our business has burst into the hallways. Opinions, feelings, experiences I've never heard before are suddenly front and center - and I couldn't be more pleased.

Thank you Mr. Schoer for your insight.


Posted by: carwash_jimmy | January 14, 2010 1:25 PM

Axes of evil...

Posted by: K3vinFitz | January 14, 2010 1:19 PM

Andy Goodman who consults to non profits has knowing the stories that have world changing impact down.He talks about how non profits, who have these passionate/change the world stories have gone the way of business speak and watered down their message with data, power point, facts, etc. Facts alone don't cause us to give our money, resources or time. I love the challenge Schoer puts forth "what can your business be a platform for"

Posted by: jeorourke69 | January 14, 2010 1:02 PM

I think it would be more accurate to call it the recession of '08. Economists designated it as a recession in early to mid 08, and the wall street crash was in Sept/Oct.

Posted by: ChrisDC | January 14, 2010 12:53 PM

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