Without a good story, leadership is impossible.
This isn’t just hyperbole. Witness some of the most famous companies in existence today–and look at their backstories. Steve Jobs launched Apple in a garage, was fired from the very company he built, and finally, came back to preside over Apple’s world-beating boom, which saw the releases of products like the Macintosh, iPhone, and iPod. Jack Ma, a former schoolteacher from China, discovered the Internet on a visit to the US; when he couldn’t find any information regarding doing business in China, Ma launched Alibaba as a business directory. As a second-year computer science major at Stanford, Sergey Brin alternately bantered and argued with Larry Page–before both of them realized there was no viable way to search the fledgling internet.
Granted, not all of these stories are exactly true, and have been fudged by publicists, the passing of time, and the hazy unreliability of human memory. For instance, as Steve Wozniak pointed out later, Jobs didn’t really launch Apple in a garage; it was more of a stopover, a quality-control step than anything else.
Even so, these stories endure–and the most memorable of them (as well as those attached to the most prominent leaders) cross the blurry threshold from tall tale to creation myth. But even if you’re a leader who’s not on the level of Steve Jobs (yet), forging a compelling, memorable personal legend is key. Further, the importance of a strong story is broadly applicable, and indeed, can benefit anyone from a entry-level job applicant to a high-level executive at a Fortune 500 company.
The role of stories in human existence
To understand why humans gravitate towards stories, and how leadership is built around narrative, it may be instructive to look at history and evolutionary psychology. Granted, much of the prehistoric past remains inaccessible to our modern minds, for the obvious reason that such peoples lacked an enduring means of communication (such as writing, though beautiful, if ambiguous cave paintings still exist today). Yet through careful analysis of the archaeological and historic evidence, it is possible to glean some key insights, and understand how human societies developed–and what part stories played along the way.
Perhaps no historian has done more than Yuval Harari to explain the pivotal role of story to the human experience. Though his 2015 book Sapiens: A Brief History of Mankind was hailed on a grand scale (and itself is an epic history in the vein of works like Guns, Germs, and Steel), its central thesis is simple: humans succeeded in dominating Earth not because we were faster, stronger, or even more cunning than animals–but because we learned to collaborate.
Individually, Harari argues, humans were easy pickings, mauled by larger predators like saber-tooth tigers or direwolves, or gored by massive, dangerous prey like aurochs or mammoths. Together, however, humans coordinated their attacks, dispatching countless species on an almost industrial scale, from Neolithic mammoth herds to the now extinct megafauna in areas such as Australia, the Western Hemisphere, and Madagascar. Though archaeologists may never know for sure, the evidence is very strong: in Madagascar, for instance, the timing of the first traces of human settlement (such as stone tools and villages) and massive die-offs in the fossil record suggests that homo sapiens were the culprits.
Key to this ravenous search for food (as well as the impressive human migrations across much of the globe) was the human penchant for working together, which was built on a foundation of stories. As Harari states in an interview with Smithsonian Magazine, the one unique trait linking all humans is the ability to create and believe fiction. From this ability, humans formed the basis of flexible cooperation on a scale (and level of complexity) that was unseen and unknown in the animal world. We fashioned various social units and their associated cultures (clans, tribes, villages, states, and empires), created artificial systems of commerce like money, and even established systems of belief like religion–for which countless humans have died.
How to conquer the world with your story
Seen in this light, it’s obvious that stories are key to any leader, be it village chiefs leading their people on voyages of exploration through the south Pacific or industrialists running a factory in 19th century England. But to truly be a cohesive, uniting force, stories must be memorable–and in order to stick out in people’s minds, these tales must follow some important criteria.
In 2007, Chip Heath, a professor at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, along with his brother Dan, released Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die. Though the book is broadly applicable to a wide range of fields from advertising to screenwriting, its main value lies in teaching readers to be meaningful and unforgettable in their communication.
For leaders, needless to say, this skill is indispensable. For instance, where public leaders are concerned, the media will create narratives, such as a brutal and incompetent leader presiding over a descent into autocracy or a rumpled firebrand whose political party managed to pull off a stunning election upset. According to the Heath brothers, there are six criteria:
- Simple: As a leader, your narrative must tout a handful of ideas that are easy to grasp and remember. Even if you deal with complicated subjects (say tech, finance, or the legal code), you should highlight a few points–and fill in the complex details later. For example, Ralph Nader highlighted the dangers of driving with one damning message: automakers killed and injured millions because they didn’t bother to make cars safe.
- Unexpected: You don’t have to overturn the existing orthodoxy, but it helps if you can subvert it in a surprising way. For example, one professor believes that bosses are little dictators. Granted, most bosses aren’t murderous (hopefully), but the parallels exist; more importantly, to hear someone frame this role in such a manner is jarring, to say the least. It’s also an analogy readers won’t easily forget.
- Concrete: The idea must have real-world implications–and thus, easily remembered. Chip Heath gives the example of John F. Kennedy, who famously vowed to put a man on the moon in a decade. This simple, straightforward challenge was tangible, readily recalled, and served as a challenge to the American scientific and engineering communities.
- Credible: To succeed as a leader, your narrative must clear up any doubts about your background or credibility. Emphasize your training, your skills thus far, and all the good you have already done.
- Emotional: Never underestimate the role of empathy, especially now that new technologies, such as digital cameras and smartphones, can share stories faster than ever (and in high-definition, to boot). For instance, the Arab Spring might not have started (or at least not in its current incarnation) without Mohammed Bouazizi, a frustrated, humiliated Millennial in Tunisia who set himself on fire to protest the rampant corruption of his country. Within days, Bouazizi’s death sparked protests in Tunisia–which then spread like wildfire across the Middle East.
- Stories: As we’ve discussed, humans thrive off stories. So pitch your background (or your life thus far) as a narrative. As a leader, it’s incredibly important to fashion your own story–or else competing, rival interests will likely do it for you.
As the popular saying goes, “money makes the world go around.” In truth, however, that position may well be occupied by stories. Through the power of fiction, humans have accomplished amazing feats: spread to every corner of the globe from a small valley in Africa, walked the surface of the moon, and split the atom. None of this would be possible without the uniquely human ability to cooperate–which in turn was only made possible through our individual adherence to larger narratives.
So harness your story–and use it to the good of your cause, be it your business, your neighborhood, or society at large.