What’s Your Story?

Cognitive scientists believe that our moment to moment perceptions are tied together by our minds imposing a narrative. The story we tell ourselves then determines the meaning of our discrete experiences. It is the role of a leader to suggest a story that addresses our deepest aspirations and energizes us to pursue them.

In a recent column in the New York Times, Thomas Friedman gives us a perfect example of what happens when the narrative is missing. Reviewing all of President Obama’s policy initiatives, Friedman writes that they’re beginning “to feel like a work plan that we have to slog through,” because we’re missing the story that ties them all together and inspires.

Friedman’s description could apply to most business organizations. In the absence of a compelling corporate story told by the leadership, most people are in slogging mode. The work becomes a chore that is performed simply for a paycheck. This is not only sad, but costly.I haven’t yet met anyone that is engaged by just showing up to do a fair day’s work for a fair day’s wage. In the absence of a story, too many people are consigned to lives of quiet and not so quiet desperation. But this doesn’t mean that the story is simply nice to have. The difference between the productivity of people that are excited about their work and those that endure it as a necessary evil is vast.  Without the story, we sub-optimize our most valuable resource.

But the story also serves the purpose of focusing and aligning individual efforts. No objective setting process or control system can possibly cover all decisions and behavior. Without the story, wasted effort and inefficiencies abound.  With the right story in place, organizations can accomplish substantially more with less.

Unfortunately, the “soft” issues of inspirational leadership and an engaging story are all too often seen as just nice to have, and are only addressed once the “hard” business concerns are taken care of. Our logic may deceive us into believing the two can be separated, but in reality it is people, inspired and energetic or not, doing the work.

Leave a Comment