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Storytelling: The Secret Weapon of Great Organizations

If as the saying goes, a picture is worth 1,000 words, then I believe that a story is worth 1,000 pictures.

Why is Akbar called Akbar the Great? Why is Alexander called Alexander the Great? Who else has earned this moniker? This was how one conversation started in my ninth grade history class. None of us knew why our history teacher, one just newly arrived in our classroom was asking this. In the past, history class was a time to take an after lunch nap, with the teacher droning out of a textbook.

 

This new teacher was different. He wanted us to do research, and then come back and tell him stories. I was lucky: I had college students majoring in history living right next door. They were excited to tell me the stories behind the names I heard in class. I found out that only four kings have been dubbed “the Great”:

  • Akbar the Great of India, for his balance and tolerance;
  • Alexander the Great of Macedonia, for the way he crated the largest empire ever made at the age of 40;
  • Peter the Great of Russia, for single handedly transforming into a modern, scientific, westernized and enlightened country; and
  • Fredrick the Great of Prussia, for his transformation of Prussia into Germany through the education of its young people in Europe. 

This history teacher taught all this to us with much passion. He caught my imagination. Right after finishing that year, I found a biography of Napoleon and finished reading it cover to cover even though there were many English words I didn't understand. That year definitely triggered something in us, a love for the art of storytelling by this teacher, and a thirst to be great like these historical heroes.

During the same year, another great teacher gave us access to the school library so we could read about science.  He pointed us toward books about real life scientists, and the real stories of what lead to their innovations and discoveries.  We learned about:

  • Archimedes, who figured out the buoyancy effect accidentally while taking bath;
  • Alessandro Volta, a biologist who discovered the concept of electric voltage while dissecting a frog; and
  • Benjamin Franklin, who tried to tap the electrical energy by taming the lightning using a kite and a key. 

We were inspired, and more intrigued by science and technology than ever. It put many of us on the road to engineering college.

A teacher's job is to impart knowledge by education. Socrates's aptly describes education as “the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel.”  Stories have the potential to light a fire within us, and to change what we want to accomplish. We believed that we had the potential to be great and to make a difference. Stories put the lessons into a package that were relatable. Since we could connect, we could imagine our own story, where we were the heroes. We started to dream.

Stories, though, aren't just for teachers. As a parent, I tell my daughter stories in hopes of inspiring her. You can sit in on one bedtime tale here:

Business organizations, too, can leverage stories to connect with employees. As human beings, we each have an innate desire to be part of something big, to make a difference. Nobody just wants to be born, eat, live, and die. Everybody wants to build a meaningful life and leave the world a better place. However, the herd mentality puts us off track. We get stuck in a rut and don't build the courage to stop and question the rationale of what we are doing.  The most dangerous phrase when running an organization's operations is “this is how we always have done it.”

Heroes, though, become heroes by doing things differently, by innovating. The stories of great people like Steve Jobs, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Napoleon Bonaparte, and others, have the potential to inspire us to do great things with our lives… and in our organizations.

Let us know how you have leveraged stories to inspire your rank and file to help accomplish something big in your organization. Especially in supply chain, how have you made your operations better or made teams function more cohesively with stories?

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