Photo © Jonathan Wilson, All Rights Reserved
Issue 1.3 | August 2009
In this Article: How does a leader define reality in such a way that it compels employees and customers to “buy in”?

By Jonathan Wilson

I grew up in the remote Yali tribe of New Guinea.  Until the early sixties, they were a people lost to the world, hidden from outsiders in their high and remote mountain fastness.  They were a stone-age people and, to some on the outside, appeared to be a people without much of value, living, as they were, without the benefits enjoyed elsewhere from technological advancements.

But it is my observation that the Yali have the upper hand in a commodity rapidly getting lost in our consumerist society: meaning.  And yet there is no reason for your company to exist and to do business unless it has meaning.  The more substantial your company’s meaning, the more likely it is to do well and last long.  In the previous Leadership by Soul article, “Navigating to Greatness“, I argued that a company’s “soul” provides the starting point for understanding the reason for your company’s existence.  However, your company’s soul remains pointless unless something is done with it: something that makes a difference to reality.

Max DePree, the lauded one-time CEO of the equally lauded furniture company, HermanMiller, Inc., said that “The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality” (in his small but excellent book, Leadership is an Art).  How does one do this?  It is here that I think we can learn something from the Yali.

A vivid memory I have from life among the Yali, and on my many return visits, is that of story-telling.  Being an oral culture, their story-telling gifts are unmatched.  Sitting in a hut late at night, with only the glowing embers of the fire to light the shadows, gnarled Yali elders would share adventures, fairy-tales and, more rarely, the ancient myths.  The adventures (usually war stories) were about high action.  One old man I knew had an arrow still embedded in his torso from a battle years past.  The fairy-tales were, very often, moral lessons couched in make-believe events.  But the ancient myths provided the deepest level of meaning.  Often weaving observed reality with hidden meaning through the use of fantastic imagery (pillars of stone falling east to west, flying snakes, talking marsupials!), the elders described, via story, why the world is the way it is, and how it should be.  These stories defined everything the Yali people sought to live for (and to reject – both are important outcomes to defining reality).

A leaders’ job is to clear the fog by defining reality truthfully and providing a legitimate rationale for why his/her followers can achieve future success.  Brash, charisma-shaped predictions of future success or hope will ultimately build cynicism into followers. If you honestly acknowledge the real challenges facing your company and, against this backdrop, provide a reasoned, sensible and compelling way forward that invites the followers to contribute their will, skill and passion, you will inspire hope, and be followed.

To do this requires learning how to tell the story of your company.  Only story can capture all the nuances of reality – and how it can be changed for the better.  All the great leaders have used story to define present reality and envisioned reality: Winston Churchill did it in World War II; Nelson Mandela in Apartheid and Post-Apartheid South Africa; Mahatma Ghandi in India.  Recently Barak Obama attempted a similar approach during his election campaign: only history will tell if he was, over time, believed and followed. He certainly was by the end of the presidential race.

Hard Business vs Soft Story?

A mistake people make is to think that the “hard” of business is not compatible with the “soft” of story.  This is to misunderstand the nature of story, and its power.  A business story that does not contain the hard facts, the numbers, the forecasts, the statistics, is a story bereft of believability.  It will not be persuasive because it bears insufficient correspondence to reality.  At some point, the cracks will show.

On the other hand, a company whose story is only made up of facts, but not of meaning, is a hollow place, a place void of purpose and therefore it, too, has no power of persuasion.  It has often been observed that customers do not buy primarily rationally, but emotionally.  The same applies to your employees.  Both customers and employees have the potential to “buy in” to your business, and the only way they will do that with any depth of loyalty is if they have been moved by your story; because it defines present and potential reality in a manner both credible and persuasive.

I routinely use a technique called The Story Wall™ to help executive teams move beyond the surface of statistics and into the rich meaning of their organization’s history, and what this has to say about their future.  By moving outside of the (sometimes constraining) boxes of, e.g. vision, mission and value statements, rich data emerges about the company: its strengths and its weaknesses, its failures and its triumphs.  One team recently used this to recapture critical traits of their business that had become lost through past severe leadership upheavals.  The team was quickly galvanized around this compelling discovery and the customers were soon hearing a corresponding story.  This year the company’s sales improved by double digits each quarter, in spite of the recession.   That is the power of story.

Another soul insight from

Video: Leadership & the Power of Story: YouTube Interview with Jonathan Wilson