014 – It ain’t what you do

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —April 11, 2018
Filed in Anecdotes, Podcast

Tags: leadership, story-triggering, lead by action, education

In this week’s episode of Anecdotally Speaking, an Irish principal demonstrates a powerful message to her school of predominantly African American students with one small action. It’s a fantastic example of how to lead through what you do, instead of what you say.

Shawn and Mark also unpack why even an action carrying a powerful message can be dampened by delegation.


Got a story or question? We’d love to hear it! Email us at

For your storybank

Late 1970’s. Primary school setting, South Shore in Chicago.

Leading up to the 1970’s, movement of more black families into the area of South Shore. Used to be predominantly wealthy, ‘white’ area of Chicago.

Lots of golf courses, fancy churches, great schools.

Sister Rosemary was the principal of one of the Catholic schools.

She’s a petite, Irish woman with red hair – classic Irish look. Carried rosary beads around instead.

She was very aware of her neighbourhood – 95% of students are African American, teachers are African American. She knew everyone by name. Very much in the know and involved in everything at her school.

On a particular day, class of 4th graders who are ten-years-old are doing their readings.

Sister Rosemary walks in and normally only goes in class when a student or teacher is in trouble.

She says good afternoon to everyone. Grabs a chair, changes the crucifix of white Jesus to a black Jesus.

One of the kids ask why she did that.

She says “We don’t know what Jesus looked like, but there’s a pretty good chance he looked more like you than he looked like me,” and walks out the door.

Podcast Transcript


Welcome to another episode of Anecdotally Speaking–the podcast to help you build your business story repertoire. I’m Shawn Callahan.


And Hi, I’m Mark Schenk. And I know it’s your turn to share the story, but I just wanted to let you know something that happened yesterday. I’d just arrived home from Perth on the Red-eye and I was working with a leadership team yesterday helping them learn how to tell their strategic story.

And as part of it we were talking about connection stories and one of the participants had talked about how he grew up in Peru. It was a pretty Spartan life; they had a roof over their heads, but it was a pretty tough life and they didn’t have a lot.

Then when he was 12 they moved to Australia and it was a completely different world full of opportunity. And he said I always remind myself of that and I remind my kids also; always remember how good we’ve got it.

After we had done the exercise on spotting stories I said to him ‘you know how you could really bring that story to life is just add a moment. Like what was the moment when you came to Australia and just realised how good, how different it was? For example, maybe the first time you tried ice cream—you walked into a milk bar and there were all these ice-creams.’’

And he just looked at me and he said, ‘Mark, it was Peru, not bloody Ethiopia’.


You got to pick your country well, don’t you?


Indeed. I’ll be using that as part of my comedy routine in the future.


Right, it sounds like a good one. Today’s story is one that I actually heard on ‘This American Life’. There are some great podcasts out there—podcasts which are just filled with stories. And ’This American Life’ is right up there.

You want to listen to stories. In fact, they say if you want to be a good writer you need to be a good reader, but I reckon if you want to be good storyteller you need to be a good story listener. You need to listen to lots and lots of good stories. Of course, that’s what this podcast is about. So, you’re in the right place, right?




The setting for this story is Chicago, the late 1970s. This is very similar to my own upbringing—the late 1970s primary school setting. In this case it’s a place called South Shore in Chicago and over the last number of decades leading into the late 1970s you had this movement of more black families into the area of South Shore.

It used to be a kind of fancy white area of Chicago and it had this quite big change. But one of the things that was left behind was all the artifacts of white living; golf courses, mansions, fancy churches, and great schools etc.

And in one of the big catholic schools (a big catholic area) there was a really standout principal—a lady called Sister Rosemary Brennan. And Sister Rosemary Brennan was Irish herself, (the classic Irish sort of look—petite sort of woman). And she didn’t wear the habit; she was more of carry the rosemary beads sort of catholic, but she was very aware of her neighbourhood.

Probably 95% of the kids were black kids, half of her teachers were black, and she was one of those principals that just knew everyone, right? She knew all the names of the kids in the school and she was the centre of a lot of the goings-on. It didn’t happen unless Sister Brenna was involved in some way.

One day, a class of 4th graders (ten-year olds) are sitting there doing their reading with their teacher and Sister Rosemary walks in. Now the kids know that Sister Rosemary doesn’t just pop in unless either a student’s in trouble or a teacher’s in trouble. So, there’s an immediate sucking in of breath when she walks in the door.

She stands in front of them and says, ‘good afternoon boys and girls’ and their response in that sing-songy voice you get with kids, ‘good afternoon Sister Rosemary’ and without saying another word she grabs one of the chairs, pulled it over to the front of the classroom. And at the very top and middle of the wall was a crucifix with a white Jesus on it and she got up on her tip-toes on the top of the chair and she reached up to the bottom of the crucifix, lifted it up, pulled that crucifix down and popped it in her bag.

And then out of the same bag she pulls out a new crucifix and pops it up on the wall. And all the kids are now staring. They’re not going back to their reading; they’re totally focused on this. And it’s a black crucifix, a black Jesus. He’s got a short-cropped afro, the wider nose, and the fuller lips.  He’s still in that pose of head down, arms out—can’t do anything else on a crucifix.

And with that she gets down off the chair and is about to head out without saying a thing. One of the kids plucks up the courage and says to Sister Rosemary, ‘so why are you doing that?’

She turns to the kids and says, ‘we don’t really know what Jesus looked like but it’s a pretty good chance that he looked more like you than he looked like me’. With that she just walks out the door.

The kids are just left with this idea. All of a sudden, their world has changed from one where Jesus was white she’d just turned Jesus is white to Jesus is black in just one go. I thought it was a great example of what leaders can do. So, Mark, what do you reckon? Shall we have a chat about the story?


Let’s talk about why that story works.


What jumps out for you?


We’ve talked about imagery in stories before, but I think this one appealed to multiple senses, like the sing-songy voice ‘good afternoon Sister Rosemary’. I can picture and hear that, it’s very familiar to me; it’s what we used to do in school.


I know. Isn’t it amazing, it just brings you back to those days so quickly? That was something that really stood out for me. The other thing for me was it works in again a sense of power, a woman with clearly a lot of power in that particular neighbourhood.

There’s an element there of you’re looking into a different world. I don’t get to see into a catholic school world very often. Even though I started off in the world of Catholicism, did all the things you needed to do; got confirmed and all of those bits and pieces as a kid, all of that stuff’s gone out the window for me now.  But some of those things are familiar, at the same time I got the feeling that I was in this different world.


I also had that image of a white Jesus looking out over a sea of black faces.


Exactly. I guess that’s the real contrast in this story, right? So, you have a power structure in the world, particularly western countries, especially around religion, these are the big topics of the day. And here in one fell swoop, this principal pulls this magic trick of turning white Jesus into black Jesus—I think that’s a lovely sense of contrast.

And here’s a woman who is very mindful of her audience. She understands her neighbourhood, what’s important to them. In some ways I suspect she would have to give up a little bit of her own understanding. A good Irish catholic—I would imagine that would be a big decision to make.


I would think so. I would also think that would indicate she was very aware of impact because she could have done that in a very different way—had the staff meeting and ask all the teachers to stick up this replacement crucifix; it’s more appropriate. And in the break, they put it up and the kids come in and they might not even notice.

I’m sure they would have noticed eventually but she didn’t do that; she did it herself. And she didn’t call attention to it other than by doing the act.




She didn’t turn around and give a lecture; she just went to walk out.


That’s so true. It’s that sense of ritual isn’t it? The Catholic Church is well known for ritual. They understand ritual. In some ways it’s built into her practice, but I love the fact that it’s a ‘pull’ strategy. She wasn’t going to stand and give a lecture to these kids about what she was doing. She just did it and that one little kid asking that brave question gave her the opportunity to say something.

But she didn’t go overboard on the description, right, just this one sentence.


One of the things I like about that is the importance of clear messaging. One thing I see leaders do a lot is their message gets lost in a flood of words. She was clear on the message she wanted to deliver, and she used very few words to deliver it. And that’s very impactful and the opposite is normally true where the leader has a really good important message, but it gets lost in a sea of words.


Yeah, that’s so true. Fantastic. Anything else we can say about that story?


The use of a ‘pull’ strategy just amplifies what we were talking about. So, she wasn’t trying to push a message at people; she did an action and then waited for people to pull the message to them.


I wonder how many classrooms there were where the question wasn’t asked. But I think there’s a lovely element. Sometimes we try to tell stories where we’ve got everything nailed down, where it’s so obvious. But a lot of the stories that really stick with me are the ones that cause me to turn them over in my head to try and work out for myself what’s going on.

And I can imagine with those kids, they’ve got this little story unfolding. They see the switch. That would be something that you’d be turning over in your mind. If she didn’t give that extra little blurb that would be something they’d be turning over and really trying to work out what’s going on. I think there’s a lot of merit in that.


Absolutely. So, where would we use this story? What sort of circumstances would this be a useful resource?


For me, I would definitely use it to help leaders understand that they need to lead through their own action, especially when there’s something really important, like a really important change.

How often have you seen this big change happening and then they delegate the ritualised act to other people? You can’t do that. It would have taken that principal some time to walk around every classroom, get up on the chair, and repeat that process in maybe 30, 40 classrooms in that school. That’s a whole day.


I’m thinking that even in the classrooms where the question was not asked, there would have been sufficient conversation in the playground afterwards. Even if it was only one classroom that asked the question that would have spread like wildfire.


And again, they’re working it out for themselves, owning it, and creating conversation—that’s power.


I just want to go back to your observation about not delegating these important tasks but doing it yourself. I’m reminded of my air force days; one of the things we used to say was that you should never ask anybody to do something that you’re not prepared to do yourself.

Yes, delegation is efficient but there are times when it can be not effective. Sister Rosemary, the principal is an example of doing it yourself.


I’ve seen it a couple of times, most recently this week. I was in Western Australia doing some work with a big resources company. I was there for a couple of days. The first day I met the CEO (nice fellow named Nigel) and we had a good chat. The next day I’m in again and I have to sign in as you do in these big companies.

I’m sitting in the foyer and I see Nigel come down and he’s walking out the front door. He turns around, sees me, I give a bit of a wave and he comes over. And he says, ‘do you need someone to sign you in?’

I say, ‘oh no it’s o.k. you don’t need to sign me in’. ‘No, I’ll sign you in’ and he took me over to the reception desk, signed me in, took me up to level 9, got me in my location, found me a chair. The guy didn’t have to do that.


This is the CEO of a multi-gazillion dollar company? Wow.


Yeah, exactly.


It’s that charisma, Shawn,


When this happened, this was the little twitter in the conversation as I started my workshop—they started off by saying ‘I hear you had an interesting person sign you in this morning’. That was the first thing that was said.

Here it was travelling through the organisation—a reinforcement of what the CEO does all the time. He’s a management by walking around guy. Tom Peters—remember that—management by walking around. So, he was definitely one of those guys. I think that speaks volumes for people.

Anything else? Where else would we tell it, apart from helping leaders understand they’ve got to get out there and do this sort of stuff?


For me one of the key messages that I would tag this within my story bank is ‘it ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it.’


Yeah, it speaks volumes, doesn’t it?


So, ratings. You told that story so I’m going to start with the ratings. I’m going to confess first of all I was lukewarm about this story when I first heard it.


That’s pretty typical of the stories I tell, I know that.


As we have unpacked it I have liked it more and more and I’m going to give this one a 7 out of 10.


Yeah, right—7 out of 10, that’s good. I think it’s one of those stories (and its industry) that if I had to go and speak to a group of teachers I would be pulling this story out. I used to do a programme here in Victoria for aspiring principals and we ran that for a couple of years here at the education department, and this would be a great story to tell. It would inspire those people to do this sort of stuff, right?


There you go, it’s another example of a potential application of this story.


Yeah, so I would give it a 7 and a half (since we’ve moved to half points).


Yes, I set that precedent.



In terms of things that we need to let our listeners know before we finish off here. That’s our story for the day. Anything that springs to mind for you, Mark?


Only just to remind people that if this does trigger any stories of you own we’d love you to share them with the rest of the audience via our website, just go to the podcast page of our website and share your own stories. You never know, it might be appearing on a future episode of anecdotally speaking.


And another thing to keep an eye out for; I just recently finished the audiobook for Putting Stories to Work (the recording) and I’ve just heard the final edit of the audiobook. It’s kind of weird listening to your own voice—I had to do it for 7 hours—read the story out. It’s quite an effort. I now have a new appreciation for just how bloody talented Stephen Fry is and all those Harry Potter books.

But keep an eye out for that. Maybe you want to jump in and get a copy of Putting Stories to Work—that way you’ll have the written book and soon you’ll have the audiobook. So that was a little plug there for the book—I hope you don’t mind but let’s finish things off.

It’s great that you’ve come along and listened to Anecdotally Speaking with us today and tune in next time where we’ll put more stories to work.

About  Shawn Callahan

Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one 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 “014 – It ain’t what you do”

  1. John Groarke Says:

    Lovely story … but I liked the Perth Big Company CEO story better … for that to get around as quickly is a testament for a great caring enterprise … certainly at that location … hopefully at all locations

  2. Mikki Swindon Says:

    Great story

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