I’m always on the hunt for the science that demonstrates the power of storytelling.
This McKinsey article, “Revealing Your Moment of Truth” (requires registration), doesn’t get into the science but it’s damn compelling in connecting storytelling to leadership.
The lead graph sets the stage in a way that probably has a few McKinsey-ites shuddering in their cubes:
The purpose of leadership isn’t to increase shareholder value or the productivity of work teams, though effective leadership does these things … The process of leadership is to turn your values into a compelling cause for others.
The article goes to explain “To pull this feat off, you’ll have to step out from behind whatever protection your job title affords and make yourself willingly vulnerable.”
This is where the storytelling comes in.
It allows you to share your experience and the proof points – not just the theoretical – behind the values you believe in.
The heart of the article consists of a senior executive taking this very action in telling a story to her staff about a childhood experience. This “moment of truth” showed how strongly she believes in commitment and loyalty.
The story is so powerful I’ve included it in its entirety:
I grew up in a very small town in the Deep South. There were two schools in our town: the white school and the black school. Since I’m black, I went to the black school, which didn’t have as many teachers or books or fun things as the white school. But I was a smart little girl, and my mother made up for the lack of resources when I got home every day. Before I could go out and play, we would sit at the dining-room table, and she would take down a big, old encyclopedia from the shelf and teach me about the world.
I looked up to see four huge men on horseback with masks on, carrying baseball bats. They were riding right at us.
One day I brought home a report card that was so good my mother said, ‘I think we can get you into the white school. Do you want to go?’ ‘Yes!’ I said, because I was a smart girl and I wanted to learn. I didn’t know that the school district was under a lot of federal pressure to integrate. Our family talked about it and decided that if the school would accept me, I would go—as long as my two older brothers transferred with me. My brothers didn’t want to go, but they loved their little sister and so they agreed. We would be the first black children at the school.
I had only two dresses and I got to wear my church dress on my first day in school! I was assigned a seat in the back next to a little redheaded white girl and I immediately became best friends with her, the way little girls do. When the bell rang for recess, I went out to the schoolyard to play with my new friend and her other friends. All of the girls were on the schoolyard, and all of the boys were playing on the football field. A large wire fence separated the two areas. My new friend told me that boys and girls used to play together, but since my two brothers were here now the school had put up the fence to separate the boys from the girls.
“We were playing and screaming and laughing when we heard screaming of a different kind from the edge of the schoolyard. I looked up to see four huge men on horseback with masks on, carrying baseball bats. They were riding right at us. Everyone ran toward the school building. The teachers got there first and locked the doors behind them. As I was running, I could hear my brothers yelling my name. They were clawing at the fence, trying to save me, but the fence was too high.
I was a fast little girl—weighed almost nothing, and most of it was legs. I was already almost to the bleacher seats stacked against the wall of the school building. I knew if I could scramble under those bleachers, the horses couldn’t get to me. I was just about to roll under the seats when I heard a scream I thought I recognized. I turned around and saw that one of the riders had grabbed my new friend by the hair—she had been playing with me—and was holding her a couple of feet off the ground. She was screaming and sobbing.
I didn’t even stop to think. I just turned around and ran at that man on the horse. He was holding my friend on the left side of the horse. This horse was so big and it was sweating and its eyes were wild and glaring at me. It was trying to move around to kick me. I ran to the man’s right side and sunk my teeth into his leg, biting him as hard as I could.
The good news is that he dropped my friend, but he picked me up instead. He dragged me by my arm across the concrete and two blocks outside the schoolyard. My Sunday dress got torn off. I was bruised all over, the skin on my back and side and left leg was in ribbons, and they told me that I lost a lot of blood. He left me lying in the street, but I don’t really remember that.
My mother came to the hospital every day for five weeks. Every day, she brought my school lessons and that old encyclopedia and she would help me study the best I could. When I got out, she asked me what I wanted to do. ‘I want to go back to the white school and graduate,’ I said. And I did.
I am a grown woman now. I am a successful executive. I am a wife and I am a mother. In this life, I have had an opportunity to learn what is most important to me, and what is most important to me is loyalty. The little white girl from that school is still my best friend today. I’m not willing to live without loyalty in my life and I’m not willing to have people I care about live without it.
We have a lot of pressures on our team these days. You’re working very hard, and we often don’t get the cooperation we need from other departments. Things aren’t always easy for us, and I know that. I know this will change, because we will be the ones to change it. I just can’t tell you when it will change.
But I can tell you this: if you are working for me and you ever get into trouble trying to do the right thing—I’m coming back for you.”
At this point, you’re probably thinking a couple things.
And I don’t have a story that measures up to this one.
Few of us do.
Such stories both inspire and cultivate connections. But all of us have stories – even if they’re not saga grade – that show who we are and what we stand for.
Writing these words prompts me to reflect on my own leadership. As an introverted soul, this type of sharing can feel uncomfortable, but I’m making a renewed commitment “to get uncomfortable.”