Leaders are not curious fauna to be analysed in laboratories, they are first and foremost people, and people who, surprisingly, tell stories. By David James
What makes some people leaders, and others simply good at their work?
The question has perplexed many management analysts and has led to one of the most ill-defined and inconclusive debates of contemporary business. The answer, however, may be quite simple. It may be that leaders are the people able to create the best stories.
A cloud of definitions
Despite great research effort, analysts have been unable to define what leadership is; still less isolate the combination of characteristics and circumstances that constitute its underlying condition. According to authors John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, in The Witch Doctors, there are at least 130 definitions. They write: “To borrow one of those military metaphors, writing about leadership is a little like invading Russia. Even writers of (Peter) Drucker’s class tend to run into deep snow.”
Why the confusion? One obvious reason is that analysts are looking for a common set of causes when there is probably none. As with any type of human behavior, the same activity may have different antecedents. But the more telling reason is that theorists are treating leaders as if they were a zoological phenomenon; like butterflies in a glass case. Such a quasi-scientific approach has led to endless attempts to define the “biology” of leadership, most of which fail to convince. Many management thinkers, such as Harvard Business School academic John Kotter, have attempted to isolate the extent to which leadership is innate or learned, and to pattern ways that it can be taught.
A moment’s reflection should enable analysts to see why an empirical approach will have only limited success. Leadership is primarily concerned with volition, or, the exercise of the will. Some people are able to align their personal intentions with the collective will of those who follow them and, when this occurs, we call it leadership. At the extreme end, the conjunctions of volition are so effective it can encourage people to sacrifice their lives.
The nineteenth-century philosopher and theologian, John Henry Newman, in his classic The Scope and Nature of a University Education observes that it is not possible to view human action just as an “object”, as if devoid of mental impulse. He imagined a professor overseeing a university curriculum in which only physical and mechanical causes were considered, volition being accounted a forbidden subject:
“Hitherto, intelligence and volition were accounted real powers; the muscles act, and their action cannot be represented by any scientific expression; a stone flies out of the hand and the propulsive force of the muscle resides in the will; but there has been a revolution, and our professor, I say, after speaking with the highest admiration of the human intellect, limits its independent action to the region of speculation, and denies that it can be a motive principle, or can exercise a special interference in the material world. He ascribes every work, or external act of man, to the innate force or soul of the physical universe.”
Newman would be bemused to know that the university course about which he speculated now exists. It is called a business school and it specialises in leadership studies. Leaders have been classified, dissected into component parts and reduced to a set of explanatory causes. What has not happened, however, is an examination of the individual and collective volition that characterises leadership.
The will to narrate
Much of that volition is dependent on the ability to tell stories. Evidence of this is leadership literature itself, especially the popular variety. These are routinely based on stories about the world’s great leaders in the business sphere and in arenas such as war and politics. For example, in Straight From the CEO, edited by William Dauphinais and Colin Price, the “world’s top business leaders reveal their ideas”. We hear the stories of the world’s great business leaders: Percy Bernevik from Asea Brown Boveri, Robert Shapiro from Monsanto, and Minoru Murofushi from Itochu. James Sarros, in The Executives, tells the life stories of a variety of Australian leaders (including Brian Quinn and Bob Ansett). Alistair Mant in Intelligent Leadership derives many of his insights into leadership from stories about high-profile leaders: Mary Parker Follett, (arguably the most seminal management thinker of the century), John Latham, an executive for IBM, and Sir William Hudson, the first commissioner of the Snowy Mountains Scheme.
Well-known business people are making a habit of telling their own stories. Two American executives, Frank Blount (former head of Telstra) and Bob Joss (former head of Westpac) have recently released a book, Managing in Australia. Ivan Deveson, former chief executive of Nissan Australia and chairman of the Seven Network, describes his leadership exploits in Evolution. Bill Gates, head of Microsoft, has released a book, At the Speed of Thought, detailing his exploits, as has Jeff Papows, president and chief executive of Lotus, in Enterprise.com. Gordon Bethune, a chief executive of Continental Airlines, details his “remarkable comeback” in From Worst to First. Al “Chainsaw” Dunlap perpetuates his mythical status with his book Mean Business.
Nor do leadership tales only come from the business community: Napoleon, Winston Churchill, General Douglas MacArthur often figure as dramatis personae in books advising the business community.
The somewhat puzzling success of this genre of business books is evidence of a widespread appetite for stories about leadership. The recent Australian speaking tour of General Norman Schwarzkopf, Mikhail Gorbachev, and other business leaders suggests that the appetite for the stories and insights of high-level leaders is no less intense in Australia than elsewhere.
A central activity of a leader is the telling of stories. There are many audiences; the most obvious being the staff. Being able to convince employees to participate in the story of the company is a key determinant of success. Research has shown that employee satisfaction is not a good indicator of a company’s success: employees might be satisfied because they are not working very hard. A good sign of organisational success, however, is when employees feel a sense of meaning and purpose in their work. Purpose and meaning are things that come from stories; the belief that the work of an organisation, in which the employee is participating, has an on-going narrative.
The story in theory
It is not common to find in management literature explicit analyses of organisational narrative; a more likely source is literary or cultural criticism (particularly of the “post-modern” school). But some work is being done on the subject.
Brian Pentland, assistant professor in the School of Labor and Industrial Relations at Michigan State University, argues that narrative is important to the understanding of organisational processes, because people “do not simply tell stories, they enact them”. He writes: “Explanation is essential to theory and practice. If we see an organisation doing well, we want to reproduce the success. If we see one doing poorly, we want to prevent failure. Either way, we need a theory an explanation, of what is causing the observed outcomes good stories are central to building better theory.”
Robert Dennehy, professor of management at the Lubin School of Business at Pace University in New York, argues that story telling is increasing in importance in a “technological and impersonal world”. He says that just because the methods of transmitting information have improved, it does not mean that ideas are communicated as well as or better than before. He explains: “Today’s managers must deal with complex matters, from going global to re-engineering. Mis-communication can mean mistakes, and mistakes in the economy can involve millions, or even billions of dollars. Increasingly complex human-resources issues, such as employee morale and loyalty, also call for effective communication.
“With a well-told story, an executive can illustrate almost any key business concept. Stories can be about customer service, culture, teamwork or decision-making, to name a few. Narrative skills provide a powerful means of relaying a message because a story evokes both visual imagery and motion. Stories are more likely to be remembered than a bland directive.”
Story telling is not confined to the leader’s pronouncements. Just as there can be no speaker in effective story telling without a hearer, so there can be no collective narrative without staff who corroborate and amplify the initial anecdotes. Australian author Max DePree in Leadership Jazz calls the workers who transmit the stories “water carriers”. He says these people, in Lyndon B. Johnson’s words, are “more concerned with the quality of their goals than the quantity of their goods”. DePree says they create a tribal spirit: “Tribal implies membership, and it implies territorial or functional accountabilities.”
The exemplary value of stories
If formal management analysis is yet to concentrate on narratives, there is considerable evidence that successful business leaders and consultants are using story telling with great effectiveness. Jack Welch, chief executive of General Electric, routinely tells stories about the “grocery store” that is the global company he leads. This creates an image that is readily understood. Welch also encourages stories from his own managers at the GE Management Development Centre; he recognises the importance of a collective narrative.
Leonard Riggio, chief executive of Barnes & Noble, tells stories about his background in Brooklyn, where he grew up in an Italian family, surrounded by relatives. Riggio, who still prefers this environment, is fond of relating tales about his prize-fighter father, who was good enough to beat Rocky Graziano before retiring to become a cab driver.
Why is Riggio telling these stories? He uses the anecdotes to distinguish between the company’s supposedly elitist past and its current strategy of aiming at the popular end of the market.
US knowledge-management consultant Kent Greenes is one of the world’s best-paid knowledge managers. He uses a technique he learned in the scouts: enacting war stories. When working on a knowledge-management program at BP, Greenes looked for stories of success and used them as spurs for organisational change. As Greenes showed, success with something as intangible as knowledge is intimately linked to the way workers absorb it into stories.
Another consultant to use storytelling as a spur for change is US-based consultant Harrison Owen. Owen uses an “open-space” technique, which treats the workforce as a kind of tribe, in which there are latent narratives. Understanding and using these narratives is the most efficient way of managing, and a way to make an organisation open to new possibilities because it is more interactive. One of the paradoxes of story telling is that an effective internal story also makes the organisation more receptive to the story of the external market.
Owen emphasises openness in the development of the story. He says: “whoever comes is the right people; whatever happens is the only thing that could have; whenever it starts is the right time; and whenever it’s over, it is over.”
That is, the story has primacy; it is not something that should be controlled. Owen says that by allowing the story to emerge, the natural leaders will also emerge.
The phenomenal success of former US president Ronald Reagan has been attributed to his ability to tell stories. Andrew Stark, lecturer in management at Toronto University, writes in the Times Literary Supplement that the apparent contradictions of Reagan’s character are resolved if he is seen as a story teller.
“When joking about distant political issues that is, issues at some remove from those closest to his heart his stories were inevitably short, Hollywood-style wisecracks, in which Reagan derived humor simply by describing a situation or a conflict, not by resolving it. When Congress would oppose him on an agricultural provision or the bureaucracy would impose some objectionable environmental legislation, he would make a remark like: status quo: that’s Latin for the mess we are in.”
Stark says that when Reagan was talking about issues close to his heart, by contrast, his stories expanded beyond one liners. “They derived their force not from the depiction of conflict or confusion, but from its resolution.”
Playing the spin
In isolating a characteristic of leadership, you run the risk that the characteristic is considered important in its own right, and so it is with story telling. Many storytellers are not leaders; storytelling is only one aspect of the volition that characterises leaders. More crucially, many stories told by leaders are not true. This was especially evident in Australia during the mid-1980s, when the notorious entrepreneurs were skilled at creating stories of their prowess that proved to be largely illusory. A glance at the popular business press of the period reveals some skilled storytellers; but the stories were often lies. Not that those telling the stories necessarily believed that they were lying. Often the most powerful stories told by leaders are those they tell to themselves; just as storytelling is a source of leadership strength, so it can often be a source of weakness.
But what was perhaps of greater interest with the entrepreneurs, was the willingness of the audience to believe the story. The only way to explain the entrepreneurs ability to entice bankers and shareholders to part with billions of dollars of investment was that they were skilled at creating stories. When the financial bubble burst in the late 1980s it became clear that normal fiduciary guidelines had been ignored; the story had an unhappy ending.
This is typical of financial bubbles; investors are constantly looking for the gap between fundamental values and the sentiment of the market. That sentiment is the aggregation of rumors and hopes and fears that constitute a group narrative. As Joseph de la Vega observes in the classic on financial markets, Confusion de confusiones, the collective will is harnessed by stories; often the best leaders are those who can resist financial stories. They pit their individual wills against the collective volition. De la Vega writes: “Whoever wishes to win in this game must have patience and money, since the values are so little constant and the rumors so little founded on truth it is certain that he who does not give up hope will win, and will secure money adequate for the operation that he envisaged at the start. Owing to the vicissitudes, many people make themselves ridiculous because some speculators are guided by dreams, others by prophecies, these by illusions, those by moods, and innumerable men by chimeras.”
Nevertheless, no leader can afford to wholly resist the general cultural narrative, the widely disseminated general story about business into which leaders tap, with varying degrees of effectiveness. For example, the business story in Australia in the mid-1980s was aggressive attack on overseas markets, in the early 1990s it was the guilt-ridden return to what the company is best at performing. In the late-1990s it is the embrace of electronic commerce. The proliferation of media outlets has increased the impact of the general social narrative; just because we live in a high-tech world does not necessarily make us less susceptible to myth (it is just that the myths are more prosaic and materialistic). The success of a leader is in part defined by his or her alignment with these broad social narratives.
Pentland says these narratives are usually reducible to the level of characters. “Characters tie events in a story together and provide a thread of continuity and meaning. Stories can be about individuals, groups, projects, or whole organisations. Stories of mergers and acquisitions, for example, are commonplace. In these stories whole organisations are personified as actors. … The personification of a whole organisation is a textual device we use to make macro-level theories more comprehensible.”
Mything the point
What are the elements of good story telling? Analysts identify repetition and color as two key elements. The ability to tell is related to the ability to listen. Dennehy writes: “Just as reading can help a person’s writing abilities, listening to and watching others can help improve story-telling skills. Listening to others tell stories can be a useful way to learn about structuring a narrative, coloring it with the right amount of detail, pacing the account suitably and developing the proper tone of voice for the situation. Watching a news reporter, business lecturer or stand-up comedian can provide helpful tips about such factors as eye contact and body language.”
Business stories, such as those found in management magazines, tend to follow a pattern; indeed they are as rigid as the plot prescriptions of Hollywood. This is to be expected: the media is as much a production line as any other contemporary organisational activity. But it also is vulnerable to the traps of story telling. Although leaders need to tell stories to shape their personal volitions and harness the collective volition of their followers, it is well to remember that stories are artifice: they are not life. The business magazine plot, where chief executives routinely triumph over adversity, thus demonstrating their heroic fortitude and exemplifying a business moral (such as: “focus your business”; or “concentrate on the customer”), are finally as much an exercise in myth-making as any other social ritual.
Just as the word “rhetoric” has come to imply deception, story telling can readily be seen as a form of manipulation. Leaders need to use stories, but they would do well to remember that it is not reality.
Bethune, Gordon. From Worst to First. John Wiley & Sons. NY. 1999.
Dennehy, Robert. “The executive as story teller”. American Management Review. NY. March, 1999.
Papows, Jeff. Enterprise.com. Nicholas Brealey. London. 1999.
Pentland, Brian. “Building process theory with narrative: From description to explanation.” The Academy of Management Review. Mississippi State. October, 1999.
Micklethwait, John and Wooldridge, Adrian. The Witch Doctors. Heinemann. London. 1996.
Stark, Andrew. Times Literary Supplement. November 12, 1999.
Stewart, Thomas. “Knowledge management at work.” Fortune. NY. June 7, 1999.