After publishing my book “On storytelling, leadership and the power of connection,” I started the project www.hetverhaalvandeleider.be. What encouraged me to do this was an incident at my book’s publication event. An economic weekly magazine offered two key leaders from the Belgian economic community to speak at the affair, but they were ultimately offered nothing more than a “stage” to say a few words.
It gave me the feeling that this was a missed opportunity — I was left somewhat disappointed and hungry for more, because many leaders from the economic world, and beyond — have so much more to say. Especially in these times of rapid change and disruption in which everyone is looking for something to hold, the beacons of the past — the church, politics, banks — have rapidly fallen off their pedestals, and I think the stories of these leaders should be heard. There is a need for anchors, for stories that go beyond the issues of the day.
Through www.hetverhaalvandeleider.be I would also like to counterbalance our everyday rat race. There is nothing wrong with the speed and efficiency of elevator pitches and thoughtful decisions based on data and figures, but we also need more depth. Despite the fact that leaders are often extremely busy, I received surprisingly positive responses when I asked them if they had time for a thorough two-hour discussion.
Together with journalist Geert Degrande, I have scheduled a dozen conversations with leaders from various organizations. And the stories that emerge are really very significant. We hang at the very lips of these leaders every time they tell a small anecdote because those stories say so much about them and the way they look at society. It is amazing how very human and modest these leaders are, even though each and every one of them could boast about what they have achieved. It’s this human element, for which there is a great need, according to Geert Noels — judging by his recent column in De Standaard — that points out how small we really are and that happiness really does depend on the small things.
The Dutch columnist Nico Dijkshoorn, in discussing the blood moon, said he didn’t get up that night because getting up at night only makes you experience true happiness if you have children at home. The story is so significant that I would like to share it here.The blood moon was visible tonight and I didn’t get up to see it. It only makes sense to get up at night for special occasions as long as your children are still living at home. That is the nicest and most special reason to get up. Secretly walk barefoot to the shed where you put the new bike for your daughter. Very gently ride that bike into the living room. Then cover it up with a sheet and quickly go back to bed again. Your daughter is waking up at five thirty in the morning. Sing for a moment, unwrap the presents and then say to your daughter “Take a walk with us to the living room.”’ She pulls the sheet away, and then she cries “Oh, one with real gears.” And then you can say, “Yes, 24 of them.” You’re in luck. You prepared everything at night. Ten years ago I would have stood in the garden with my children. They would have looked to the moon, sleepy, and then I would have explained to them what exactly it is they’re looking at. I’d tell them to pay attention, the moon will turn red in a moment. “Yeah, Dad, we know already. Just shut up now.” My finest nocturnal awakening was 44 years ago. I dreamed about a dog who could talk, and then my father woke me up. He shook my shoulder. “Nico, Nico, there is boxing on TV,” he said. I followed him in my underwear and then I watched — together with my father — Muhammad Ali fight Joe Frazier. It’s not the fight I remember, but those few hours next to my father. I was sitting there just like a real adult. Boys with boys. My father said things like, “Look, he is lowering his defense,” and then I groaned. I was watching sports like guys do at night. The next day, I had to go back to school, but I was suddenly much too old for that. That’s the kind of night I wanted to have with my kids tonight. A night to remember.
In this story, Dijkshoorn talks about the unconditional love parents have for their children and how important it is that children experience this love. Later in life, they’ll think back to these moments as the happiest moments in their lives.
If we hear leaders talk about their passions during our interviews — going on tour with a musician, what they’d do if they’d win the lottery, committing themselves to projects supporting poor countries, objects that are of emotional value to them, a picture they took of a white shark, about leadership (I once had to report to someone who was used to yelling at people in public) — then we experience the same feeling we get when we listen to Dijkshoorn’s story. In other words: the stories they tell allow their audience to find out more about their visions and values.
Of course I’ve always believed in storytelling, otherwise I wouldn’t have started my own company 10 years ago doing just that. But since we started our interviews, I truly believe we arrived at a crossroads in history, at which point we need stories more than ever. They are all around us. Even without the phenomenon of a blood moon, Nico Dijkshoorn would undoubtedly have found a way to celebrate the love for his father and his children.
About the Author
Raf Stevens recently published his second book, “Leadership, Storytelling and the Power of Connection.” He has over 20 years’ experience in communications. Ten years ago he decided to follow his passion: storytelling. Since then Raf has helped dozens of organizations and their leaders in the search for stories to create a stronger connection. He is a partner of Anecdote and a licensed Storytelling for Leaders® trainer.