Story of Self, Us, Now and Leadership

We talked about the importance of storytelling and touched briefly on it but segued quickly to storylistening. You need to storylisten before you can storytell, but maybe you aren’t confident as a good storyteller. Now over ten years ago I gave a talk at what was a somewhat obscurely known event called TED that at the time was one of the NYT critic’s favorite picks (Ref: ) for no clear reason I could fully figure out because it lacked structure. And I’d never gone to storytelling school so I didn’t expect it to land well. But many years later I found myself at a fundraising seminar at Harvard where a bespectacled, grayed, and slightly heavy guest visitor came to address all of us on how to tell a story. I admit to be a bit unimpressed and not expecting much, but I instinctively pulled out my iPhone and hit “record” when the lecture began. I listened to Marshall Ganz’s one hour presentation every day while I made and ate my breakfast while president — and the many lessons in it sunk in, and gave sense to me why my storytelling over the years “worked” and why it sometimes didn’t work, too.

Think of a spiral with your finger pointed at the center, and then swirling outwards into bigger and bigger circles with your entire arm getting involved. Now rewind and get your finger back into the center. That’s your story of SELF. Wind your finger in circles further outward a few cycles. That’s the story of US. Wind your finger outwards again until your arm is stretched fully. That’s our story of NOW. Ganz describes the challenge of leaders who are driving change to present a compelling story composed of three parts: SELF, US, NOW. The story of SELF is about you and your journey to become who you are today. Ideally it is a story that you expect others to relate to in some way even if the details are slightly different. For me in my first TED talk, I believe at the heart of my story of SELF is the key moment when my grade school teacher said I was good at Math and Art, but my father selectively only remembered that I was good at Math. It turned out this was a common moment for many who heard my story, and so they began to lean in.

The story of US is about the people who are bothering to listen to your story. You can’t tell the story of us if you don’t know who you’re talking with. Thus storylistening is important otherwise you’re likely to tell a story of US that has nothing to do the folks who are listening. The story of US binds your SELF to them — and establishes a bond of trust that an acknowledgement is made of how different we really aren’t. Ganz gives the example in then Senator Barack Obama’s 2004 speech at the Democratic National Convention (Ref: ) which his methods strongly influenced: “I stand here knowing that my story is part of the larger American story.” (Ref: ) is connecting to the US of the Americans in the audience listening. That us is a diverse group of people whose stories Obama references:

“That is the true genius of America, a faith in the simple dreams of its people, the insistence on small miracles. That we can tuck in our children at night and know they are fed and clothed and safe from harm. That we can say what we think, write what we think, without hearing a sudden knock on the door. That we can have an idea and start our own business without paying a bribe or hiring somebody’s son. That we can participate in the political process without fear of retribution, and that our votes will he counted – or at least, most of the time.” (Ref: )

“This year, in this election, we are called to reaffirm our values and commitments, to hold them against a hard reality and see how we are measuring up, to the legacy of our forbearers, and the promise of future generations. And fellow Americans – Democrats, Republicans, Independents – I say to you tonight: we have more work to do. More to do for the workers I met in Galesburg, Illinois, who are losing their union jobs at the Maytag plant that’s moving to Mexico, and now are having to compete with their own children for jobs that pay seven bucks an hour. More to do for the father I met who was losing his job and choking back tears, wondering how he would pay $4,500 a month for the drugs his son needs without the health benefits he counted on. More to do for the young woman in East St. Louis, and thousands more like her, who has the grades, has the drive, has the will, but doesn’t have the money to go to college.

Don’t get me wrong. The people I meet in small towns and big cities, in diners and office parks, they don’t expect government to solve all their problems. They know they have to work hard to get ahead and they want to. Go into the collar counties around Chicago, and people will tell you they don’t want their tax money wasted by a welfare agency or the Pentagon. Go into any inner city neighborhood, and folks will tell you that government alone can’t teach kids to learn. They know that parents have to parent, that children can’t achieve unless we raise their expectations and turn off the television sets and eradicate the slander that says a black youth with a book is acting white. No, people don’t expect government to solve all their problems. But they sense, deep in their bones, that with just a change in priorities, we can make sure that every child in America has a decent shot at life, and that the doors of opportunity remain open to all. They know we can do better. And they want that choice.” (Ref: )

Trump’s story of us as covered in the Nation during the 2016 elections: “Trump describes his constituency as unjustly beleaguered economically, threatened by immigrants, Muslims, and “job loss” from abroad, and yearning for an idealized past when life was better.” And tells their stories that he’s listened to and is echoing back to ensure they know they’re heard. (Ref: ) Ongoing research indicates that Trump’s ability to share an effective story of US persists (Ref: ) which despite what critics say how he’s not listening to anyone, it appears that he is.

When there’s a “click” between a story of SELF and US, it’s the perfect time to talk about the story of NOW. You’ve spiraled from the center of the world, you, out to spiraling into who we all are. And as your arm is fully extended you are sharing some new reality that’s come from “out there” from the world outside our peaceful existence, and it seeks to threaten who we are. Once that comes into view, the choice is clear: either we let it happen to us, or we fight to make it not happen. The story of NOW is either a difficult one to construct or a simple one. If it’s an implausible future, then it’ll be close to impossible to make a compelling story; if it’s plausible then you’ve got it super easy. Thus the risk of failure will increase proportional to how the comprehensibility of what’s coming NOW will land. And don’t forget Mary Anne’s curve and remember that there are the detractors who will be working overtime to ensure that your story of NOW is absolutely false and ungrounded and simply a fake, made-up story.

But if you can spin up a perfectly spun-up vortex of stories of SELF, US, NOW you will be given the opportunity to lead and make change happen at the scale required by the story of NOW. And all you can do is hope that you were right, and that you have not led your organization to its demise. As any student of Clayton Christensen’s discourse on disruptive innovation — the idea that a large, successful enterprise tends to ignore shifts in technology that smaller entities might take better advantage of to disrupt the incumbent. HBR definition:

““Disruption” describes a process whereby a smaller company with fewer resources is able to successfully challenge established incumbent businesses. Specifically, as incumbents focus on improving their products and services for their most demanding (and usually most profitable) customers, they exceed the needs of some segments and ignore the needs of others. Entrants that prove disruptive begin by successfully targeting those overlooked segments, gaining a foothold by delivering more-suitable functionality—frequently at a lower price. Incumbents, chasing higher profitability in more-demanding segments, tend not to respond vigorously. Entrants then move upmarket, delivering the performance that incumbents’ mainstream customers require, while preserving the advantages that drove their early success. When mainstream customers start adopting the entrants’ offerings in volume, disruption has occurred.” (Ref: )

So if the story of NOW is one of being disrupted by a newcomer, it becomes even more important for the leader to make a big bet. Because if they are gone, their organization will suffer the fate of becoming disrupted and vanish along with the CRTs, Video/DVD rental shops, phone landlines, and other products and services that are being disrupted by the computational revolution.

Keep in mind that once a story of SELF and US is made clear, and there’s a connection felt between the two entities, then willingness to hear about NOW (the change) starts to occur. But it’s important to remember that a feeling of a connected SELF and US doesn’t happen within the blink of an eye, and will take time depending upon how different superficial characteristics are at play. Appearance plays a huge factor in affability from one’s SELF to connect with an other’s US. Being a light-skinned, tall man gives one’s SELF a huge advantage over the rest of the world, at least in the West, because we’ve spent most of our time staring at important leaders, Hollywood stars, tech CEOs, newscasters, etc as the symbols of power who all look one way. And what isn’t immediately obvious to this powerful class is that guys who like me (an Asian American man) have spent their entire lives watching television and movies that are filled with Caucasian people so it’s easy to forget, unless you look in the mirror, that you’re not Caucasian too. That is, until you experience how you are different in how they talk down to you with a tinge of holding something back because they’ve seen folks who look like me as subservient while knowing some form of martial art that could possibly hurt them.

For that reason I have to owe it to Barack Obama in 2008 for coming into the foreground because for a brief moment in time, the idea of a leader who might not be a tall White male became disrupted. It was in that moment when someone who looks like me could be conceivable as the leader of a century old institution, and entrusted to do the right thing even though I didn’t look the part. For those of you who might look a little different than the stereotypical leader as a dark-skinned woman, or a proud transgender person, or an “overweight” (by whose standards?) older (by whose standards?) man, know that “yes we can” is not a lie at all. For those of you who look the part of a leader whereever you might be but who inside you know what it’s like to be different from the personal experience of a Chinese person living in London or a White American living in Singapore, it’s a great time for you to recognize that story of SELF within you as a source of new opportunity to unpack the potential in a more inclusive world of business.