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Leadership: The Power of a Story

The Power of a Story

Tell me your stories, I’ll teach you my
songs and we’ll have one more

Isn’t that what friends are for?

Isn’t that what friends are for?

Those lyrics from a 1972 Paul Williams song seem to capture what many business leaders have learned over the years. Stories and illustrations have sticking power, and provide insight into personalities, hopes, and dreams like nothing else.

They’re great vehicles for imparting vision, teaching procedures, and coaching performance. One of my mentors very often started an impromptu coaching lesson by saying: “let me tell you a story.” Out of all the principles he taught me, the ones taught with a story have stuck the longest.

This isn’t a new concept.

Jesus’ favorite method of teaching his followers was to tell them stories. You may be completely ignorant of the Bible, but no one is ignorant of the principles taught in the story of the Good Samaritan, or the Prodigal Son. Aesop’s fables have been used for centuries to make moral points. Most of us remember the folk stories of the little boy that cried wolf, and the exaggerated warnings from an overly excited chicken little. Those stories put flesh on truths and concepts, and add practical value to our lives.

When I first began doing field service on motor drives, I went into a plant with a huge burn mark on the wall behind an obviously newly replaced 2000 amp disconnect. “What happened here?” I asked. “Let me tell you about that” was the opening reply, and then the maintenance supervisor told me the story about one of his men getting killed on that spot while attempting to open the previous disconnect with the motor grounded, and fault current flowing. The resulting explosion killed him.

I understood electrical physics, but that story drove home a safety point that I never forgot. I’ve been in similar situations where a piece of equipment faulted a high energy circuit to ground, and never have I been tempted to try opening the circuit. I just stay out of the way and let the fuses open. The story that gentleman told me went deep into my psyche, and has served me well for decades.

Shortly after getting my pilot’s license, I went to the airport one day and noticed a blurb about a crash involving a plane that I’d flown several times. I asked what happened and was told the story of a pilot that decided to do a touch and go over an unknown airstrip. Unfortunately, the strip was long enough for landing and take offs but not for touch and goes. He hit the trees, destroying the plane, and seriously injuring himself and his passengers.

Every time I’ve been tempted to make an unplanned, non-emergency landing at an unfamiliar small strip, I thought of that story and continued on my way. It isn’t that I didn’t already know better, in fact that’s part of pilot training, but the story drove home the point in ways that reading a safety procedure never could. That’s the power of a story.

What about you, how do you teach and coach your coworkers or family? If you’re in leadership, how do you flesh out your vision for the organization or department in ways that everyone can understand and grasp?

Maybe you need some stories. Your stories can be about your own experiences, those of others, or stories, illustrations or jokes that you’ve heard or read. Here are a few ideas that may help:

  1. Keep them
    short. Just about the worst sin you can commit is taking too long to tell the story. The story of the Good Samaritan takes about 90 seconds to read. Think about that.. 90 seconds to read probably one of the best known and most influential stories known to mankind. Get the picture? Keep it short.

  2. Don’t talk down to your listener. People do not appreciate being treated as inferiors. Let’s face it, you don’t know everything, and the people you work with are already aware of this. So drop the pretense. Self depreciating stories about your own embarrassing incidents and mistakes make great stories. Use them.
    Try not to us
    e stories where you are the hero;people will miss the point of your story wondering how such an arrogant jackass managed to get the position you hold!

  3. Give credit where credit is due. If you heard a great one liner on Seinfeld that illustrates a point, then tell them where it came from. Never claim anything as yours that you borrowed from someone else. People love hearing popular culture being used to illustrate truths, values, or business principles.

  4. Be interesting!

    Read or listen to great storytellers and match their style to your own. You don’t have to pretend to be something you aren’t; rather just be humble and yourself. But, be interesting! Honesty, competence and interesting are not mutually exclusive terms.

  5. Encourage others to tell you their stories If the person you’re coaching is able to tell you their story that drives your point home, you’ve done well!

Finally, let me give you a little example. I don’t teach many of our troubleshooting classes any longer, but I’ve used this illustration to drive home a simple point. There’s a Far-Side cartoon that shows this poor sap sitting wide-eyed in an electric chair with his arms and legs strapped down, and an electrode shaped like a beanie on his head. It’s obviously an execution. Two big guards are standing next to him looking down at a large wall mounted disconnect switch. One of the guards is rubbing his chin saying, “I dunno, just click it up and down a few times, maybe the contacts are dirty.

After they quit chuckling, I’ll just say, “The majority of electrical and electronic problems, no matter how complex they may appear, are due to dirty contacts and loose connections. Don’t let yourself get suckered into anything else until you eliminate that” It’s just a way to drive home a point in a way that’s more likely to be remembered.

Rather than preaching about the dangers of disconnecting the motor field on an unloaded DC motor, I just tell my guys about the time I had to dive to the floor behind a control cabinet while a DC motor self destructed as it tried to spin up to infinity, throwing shrapnel all over the plant. The stories (especially ones that involve you nearly getting killed) are great ways to drive home important points!

Use stories… They’re a powerful tool of leadership.

(one guy says to another,”did I tell you about my grandson?” The other guy says, “no, and I’ve always appreciated it.”)

Eddie Mayfield


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