I finally sat down this last weekend with the box of old CDs that had been muttering at me for years now for attention. I figured I better rummage through them before my one remaining CD player went the way of my record turntable, cassette machine and digital tape player.
(There is something here about the extinction of physicality in our lives, but then I’m reminded there is yet another box in the basement stuffed with drug store envelopes of printed photos and negatives!).
As I slipped one disc after another into the CD slot on my laptop, the arcane, numbered file names came alive with photos of family on vacation, at birthday parties, rites of passage and simple silliness of life. (“Oh, remember when…”) They told a story, the plotline of which perhaps is only clear today, or perhaps its meaning has more relevance and resonance. The early hints of personality and dreams, the triumphs, the struggles, the errant adventures and distractions, the refuge of friends, family and home.
Stories——whether spoken or preserved in photo albums or amid the sparks of a fading campfire roasting S’mores——carry out some precious geology in our lives. They level us, putting our peaks and valleys into perspective; they connect us, offering a realization that we are not alone in our dreams or fears; they lift us up, nudging us to live for something bigger and longer than today.
I have long believed that stories are the blood flow of truly superb, enduring organizations. I bemoan the lifeless vision and mission statements some consultants or committees manufacture as a weak proxy for the real work of exploring and expressing the organization’s story, its legends, its folklore, its heroes. Why do we exist? What do we uniquely bring to the world that matters? What do we believe about each other? Do we have a dream that will connect us with others?
On an institutional level, when we share a positive narrative, we become something larger, different. We want to add to the story, be part of it, protect it. It binds us across geography that might otherwise unravel us, across cultural differences that might abrade us. We have resilience during difficulties because-as the adage reminds us-blood flows thicker than water.
But on a more personal level, stories are nearly inseparable from authentic leadership. Like my box of photos, when we better understand and share from where we came, others can better buy into where we want to go. They want to be part of it. When we can share those stories and take the time to hear the stories of others, we understand that what really drives us is not some charted set of personality traits, but a story that we want to live out.