[The following is the seventh in a series of articles published in the business section of the Vancouver Sun. For context, see the intro to this series here.]
Albert Einstein said that ‘not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.’
While statistical data is essential and telling, it might soon be time to confess that we in business have taken the need for quantitative, numeric confirmation too far, particularly when it comes to mobilizing groups to great accomplishments.
It always strikes me as odd to observe leaders charged with navigating people through change or rallying teams to heroic effort regarding a rational, analytic framework as the lynchpin of human motivation.
The work of the great mythologist Joseph Campbell demonstrated that human beings the world over are wired to respond to storytelling. This is because we are emotional, meaning-making creatures first, and what stir us are efforts and opportunities that capture our imagination.
Campbell articulated what he called the hero’s journey, underlined by the stages of transition that people travel through on their way to accomplishing transformative successes. This journey is buttressed by an inherent instinct within most people to give their time and efforts to something greater than themselves.
Certainly many individuals can be motivated by short-term, self serving motives, but groups especially have an emotional root system that needs cultivating if a collective effort is to properly bloom.
This no doubt sounds dubious to the data-driven manager who drives people through intimidation, leveraging their fear of not meeting targets with the threat of losing their livelihood. Exercising unilateral power in this way can be effective for those leaders whose modest ambitions are matched by the modest successes that such tactics bring.
But I’m speaking to those out there who have experienced first hand a team whose accomplishments have exceeded the sum of its parts, or who recognize that resilience and competitiveness are increased when a group is serving something more compelling than the bottom line.
Former CEO of Sony Pictures Peter Guber has written in his new book ‘Tell to Win’ how a lifetime of refining his storytelling ability has accounted for the lion’s share of his success. As he recounts the stories of his life, time and again he returns to the premise that targeting people’s emotions is the best way to move them to action.
Once their heart or gut has been engaged, people will formulate sensible reasons to act.
Guber claims that in this hyper-competitive, fear-based, flat and global economy, telling purposeful stories cuts through the turbulence and arrests attention and motivation like nothing else can.
The elements of a purposeful story include a call to action, something that the teller wants their audience to do. Stories should also include a hero. Basketball coach and executive Pat Riley defines a hero like this: ‘In every story there is one person who can make the difference. That’s your hero.’ Finally, a great storyteller has empathy and is able to relate emotionally to their audience. This requires a level of openness and vulnerability that remains stubbornly rare among managers and leaders today.
John Furlong, for example, the visionary and leader of Vancouver’s 2010 Olympic Winter Games, and a natural storyteller to boot, describes an almost spiritual bond to employees. The team that orchestrated that event clearly served something greater than self-interest and the relationship they developed would have been impossible without the combination of openness and authenticity intrinsic to Furlong’s leadership style.
We will always need to measure performance, track progress, install sound processes and benchmark efforts. These are the practices of a responsible if not successful organization.
Business however is driven by people, and people are not easily reduced to their numeric equivalent.
Like it or not, competitive edge includes having an intimate knowledge of what moves people and how to consistently tap the reservoir of passion and motivation that exists in our deepest desire to contribute to something larger than ourselves.