Leaders should tell a story to explain why

Posted by Shawn Callahan - February 11, 2010
Filed in Business storytelling, Leadership, Strategy

On a recent trip to Canberra I was lining up to board the plane. Behind me was a young family. Their young son, probably four or five, was quizzing his dad.

The boy said: “Why are we in the line?”

“Because we are getting on the plane,” his dad replied.

“Why are we getting on the plane?”

“Because we are visiting Grandma in Canberra.,” says dad.

“Why are we visiting Grandma?”

“Because we love Grandma and she likes us to visit.”

Our urge to know ‘why’ is deeply embedded in our psyche. From an early age we want to know the reason things happen. It helps us predict what might happen in the future and makes us feel safe.

The desire to know why doesn’t diminish with age. If a CEO announces that the company is shifting direction to concentrate on customer service, everyone in the company will want to know why.

And if they haven’t been told the story of how the shift came about, they will create their own story.

Imagine two colleagues chatting after the CEO announcement to focus on customer service.

“After all these years banging on about innovation, now it’s customer service. What’s that about?” says Paul

“Well, I heard the new chairman is a zealot for customer service and at his last position there was a dramatic improvement when they focussed on their customers. He must have twisted the CEO’s arm,” says David

“Good to know the CEO can think for himself,” Paul chuckles rolling his eyes.

If leaders don’t tell the story that explains important decisions then employees will use the best information they have to create their own story. At best this only confuses everyone and stalls action. At worse the new direction is actively undermined by the competing stories.

You might be thinking, “so do the senior leaders simply spin a story that’s serves their purpose?” You could try but employees are too smart to believe a porky pie. It’s in everyone’s interest for the leaders to tell what really happen to prompt the change. There are two things someone hearing the story will ask themselves before they will really listen to what’s being said: is it relevant? and, is it plausible? Fail these two tests and you may as well be telling the stationery cupboard. With something as important as a new strategic direction it’s vital that all the leaders want and can tell this story.

We call this type of story a strategic story and we’ve been having fun helping some interesting companies find and tell their strategic story.

About Shawn Callahan
Shawn is one of the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on:

2 Responses to “Leaders should tell a story to explain why”

  1. Neil Denny Says:

    We were discussing this need for “Why” the other night in a home study group. I agree. The need for why never diminishes.
    Do you think the problem is that we reduce, instead, the time we make available for the “Why”s in our lives and businesses?
    It also occurs to me that the flip side of Why has to be “Because” I read somewhere, possibly in one of the Gladwell books, about the photocopier experiment.
    When a researcher asked to jump a queue to use a busy photocopier he/she had a much greater rate of acceptance by following up the initial question “Do you mind if I push in?” with a because, or an explanation.
    I recall that the remarkable thing was that the precise nature of the “Because” made little difference, regardless of whether it was feasible or nonsensiscal.
    I don’t recount that to justify misleading explanations, but rather to demonstrate that as long as we remember to consider and make the “Because” explicit then we are part way there already.

  2. Lyndon Says:

    I like this quote
    “The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity” – Dorothy Parker