The power of a common story

I’ve written previously about Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, who is one of the most respected religious leaders in the world today. While I am honored to share a name (ok, one letter different) with such a great person, I am also humbled to share some of his wisdom with you for the purpose of becoming better leaders.

Rabbi Sacks recently participated in an interview with author Tim Ferriss on his podcast, The Tim Ferriss show. The entire interview is important and worth listening to. Ferriss and Sacks cover topics like leadership, morality, and mysticism. In answer to Ferriss’ questions, Sacks always provides illustrative stories, a lesson in itself around impactful communication. You’ll also hear other important gems like, “Good leaders create followers, great leaders create leaders.”

You can listen to the podcast right here:

For those who prefer to read a transcript of the interview, click here

While there are so many parts of the interview to unpack, let’s devote time and focus to just one this week. Let’s discuss the concept of the common story to help create commonality in a group and it’s impact on leadership.

Here is what Rabbi Sacks said about the common story in America:

“One thing that Britain took seriously, and America took much more seriously, was the concept of national identity. There was a kind of initiation that you went through in the States, in schools, where you learned what it was to be an American, what were the key dates, who were the key people, and so on and so forth.

I once pointed out there’s fascinating experience to walk around the monuments in Washington, and then walk around the monuments in Britain. If you walk around the monuments in Washington, you go to Lincoln Memorial. On the one hand, you’ve got the Gettysburg Address, on the other, the second inaugural. You look at the Jefferson Memorial with screens of text on marble tablets. You look at the Roosevelt Memorial with those six spaces, one for each decade in public life, with the key quotes, ‘We have nothing to fear but fear itself.’ You look at the Martin Luther King Memorial, with well over a dozen of his most memorable lines.

And I suddenly realized, in America, monuments are something you read. Now, go to Parliament Square in London, and you will find that Nelson Mandela gets three words, or two words, sorry: Nelson and Mandela. Winston Churchill wrote as many memorable sentences as anyone in the English language, gets one word, Churchill. In Britain, monuments aren’t things you read. But, in America, they are. Why? Because America had to integrate successive waves of immigration. So they had to read the American story. They had to live the American story. They had to make it their own story.

The second you have a strong national identity, then you have a strong basis for saying we are all in this together. We all have collective responsibility for the common good. Now, around 2016, just before the presidential election, I was privileged to win quite a big award in the States, presented in the Kennedy Center in Washington. And I mentioned this story. And after I came down and got my award, people said to me, ‘Well, you know, we used to do that. But we have stopped telling the story now, because we’re embarrassed to tell the story.’

And the moment I heard that, I realized that America was in deep trouble. Because there is no way you can generate we within society without a strong sense of we all belong together. All you do is you dis-aggregate and fragment the culture. And the end result is that people like Black Lives Matter and all the others feel they are not fully part of this society. This society doesn’t fully recognize and respect them. And you can’t live with it. So, first things first, tell the story. And I was just thinking, can it really be done?

And then my beloved number one daughter, who has clearly divine insight here, decided two years ago or three years ago that she was going to buy Dad a birthday present of tickets for Elaine and myself to go and see Hamilton the musical. And I suddenly realized what it was, to retell the American story in a new and very inclusive way. So full marks to Lin Manuel Miranda for something that is very creative, in expressing the we in a new way. So that’s the first thing, tell a national narrative.”

Stories are powerful and the lesson here is that one need not look to a country to have culture-building narratives. These narratives exist in our organizations right now. I remember when taking Business ethics in graduate school, professor Judy Frels introduced us to the idea that every company has stories. There are the “formal” stories that are in media, orientation, up on walls, and other channels. And then there are also “informal” stories that are told between team members about how “things really work around here.” Culture exists whether we are intentional about it or not.

As leaders, stories are some of the best communication mechanisms we have and neuroscience tells us that they are memorable and easy to understand. The next time we try to get a point across, especially around culture, let’s commit to using the story as a way to do so, especially a relevant and real-life story about a customer.

The common narrative is but one element that Rabbi Sacks discusses to help create a more communally focused world. I recommend you listen to the conversation in its entirety and remember to notice how Rabbi Sacks frequently begins his answers with…a story.

KEY TAKEAWAY: