The Three E’s of Retellable Leadership Stories
There are three kinds of people, said the sign on the wall of my dad’s coaching office:
Those that make things happen, those that watch things happen, and those that don’t know what the heck happened.
I understood, even at age 7, that it was best to be the first kind of person, the kind that makes things happen. But what the sign didn’t say was this: to be a leader, you’ve also got to let others know what just happened. And as you develop your stories, it’s helpful to think of them in three different categories:
1. Everyday Stories – The ones that you’ll find today
Spilling coffee on yourself in the elevator. The weird thing your marketing director said about thumbtacks. The surprising news from your ex-wife. These stories stay with you through the afternoon, become emblematic of your day, and make it home, or travel out with you that night. Each of these bring some sense of surprise, and some change in you, either big or little. You’re compelled to retell these at a meeting, when you call your mom, or post them on Facebook. They can serve to open a speech that day as well, connecting the audience to what is current. These stories come and go, but you hold on to the best ones. Here are some ideas on collecting them.
2. Evolving Stories – The ones you’ll tell through time
These stories are your ringers. Maybe you have one, two, or five that sit in your ‘quiver’ that you retell in a pinch to lead off a talk, get a laugh at dinner or a meeting, or to offer counsel to an employee. These stories give insight into what you’ve learned and why you do what you do. These stories can change and grow with time (how big was that fish again?). Add them up, and they form the constellation which is ‘your story,’ the one with the twists and turns in your journey – showing who you are, and holding all of your other stories. Here are some ideas on making your evolving stories more retellable.
3. Enduring Stories – The ones that are shared through our culture
These are the big ones that make up our larger identity. George Washington crossing the Delaware. Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat. Isaac Newton and the apple. They influence how we live as a society of people, and give a glance into our mythology. In organizational culture, this likely includes your origin story, your key a-ha moments and your big turning points: Steve and Steve in the garage building their first Apple. Steve getting kicked out and coming back. The story of the iPhone. These stories can be found, and they can be shaped, too, with leadership and employee buy-in. Here are some tips on crafting your origin story.
Keep this in mind: Each of these kinds of stories influences the other kinds of stories. Those stories of our everyday lives serves as an ongoing feed into our quiver of evolving stories, and those stories, influence (and are influenced by) our enduring cultural stories. For example, the everyday stories by everyday people in Montgomery, Birmingham and across the South formed the foundation for evolving stories that came out of the Civil Rights marches, boycotts, and organizing. Because the Rosa Parks story inspired others facing hardship – and because it was understood by leadership to do so – it endured, passing the test of time, as evolving to be told and retold, helping others face the many real challenges that followed to make it happen.
Of course, everyday stories don’t always build to enduring stories. I’m not saying that the coffee stain on your shirt will survive into the next century. But I am saying that if you don’t let others know what just happened, someone else just may.