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.


The importance of a good argument

My wife and I had been dating for almost a year. I had known for some time that she was “the one” and I was getting ready to propose. I met up with a friend for lunch who was asking me how things were going. After sharing with him that I was planning to propose soon, he asked me a surprising question: “Do you and your girlfriend argue well?”

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Photo by Gratisography on

It was an important question and I had to give it some real thought and reflect on it before responding. I had learned from reading books like The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni that conflict can bring teams closer together. Lencioni also writes about how you can have positive conflict when you have trust.

Further, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, in his weekly covenant and conversation series, teaches that, “there is something holy about argument.” In one edition of the series, called “God Loves Those Who Argue,” he writes:

In Judaism there is something holy about argument. Why so? Only God can see the totality of truth. For us, mere mortals who can see only fragments of the truth at any one time, there is an irreducible multiplicity of perspectives. We see reality now one way, now another…The different voices of priest and prophet…philosopher and mystic, historian and poet, each capture something essential about the spiritual life.

Further, Rabbi Sacks describes two kinds of arguing:

  • Arguing for the sake of victory
  • Arguing for the sake of truth

Arguing for the sake of victory is all about winning. It involves listening to respond instead of listening to understand. It’s winning the war of “one-liners” and trying to destroy your opponent while trying to simultaneously discredit his argument.

Arguing for the sake of truth is essentially the opposite. It’s arguing to make something better, to reveal truth that comes from a variety of perspectives and views. It means putting the pieces of truth together from the same side of the table. It is arguing to make something better.

Arguing for the sake of truth even glorifies the non-prevailing side of an argument because it helps reveal truth and expands the knowledge of all parties.

In Rabbi Sacks’ covenant and conversation about, “The First Populist”, he writes:

What matters…is why the argument was undertaken and how it was conducted. An argument not for the sake of Heaven is one that is undertaken for the sake of victory. An argument for the sake of Heaven is undertaken for the sake of truth. When the aim is victory…both sides are diminished…But when the aim is truth, both sides gain. To be defeated by the truth is the only defeat that is also a victory.

Recognizing the merits of arguing for the sake of truth, how do we, as leaders, create the environment to encourage arguments of this kind?

To answer the question, it is important for us to be aware of the obstacles to doing so and then taking steps to overcome them.

First, psychological science tells us that power is inversely related to perspective taking. A study by Adam Galinsky and Maurice Schweitzer has shown that leaders are more likely to prioritize their own perspective on issues. Listening to others first, before speaking, is one way to put other people first. Often times, if the leader speaks first, the rest of the group may tend to go along with him so as not to seem like they disagree.

Second, leaders run fast. Sometimes we believe we have to do something or believe we already know the right answer. People on our team who challenge the leader can be seen as a nuisance or an impediment to progress. Leaders must fight the urge to move too fast. Good leaders know when to slow down, encourage discussion, and ask good questions of the team to uncover “truth”.

Third, some individuals are simply less comfortable with conflict. Developing the muscle of moderating a disagreement within our teams can help us get more comfortable.

Fourth, we may believe we have more of a complete picture than anyone else on our teams because of our leadership position. We take for granted what our team may know relative to what we know. Being aware of this tendency is crucial because it is often untrue. Just because a leader has more of a “bigger picture” does not mean that the picture is a complete one. Anyone who has been through a merger or acquisition knows that often the people who execute the deal do not really understand how to achieve the desired synergies in implementation. Implementation is typically where mergers and acquisitions fail.

Finally, we must commit to practice speaking up and demonstrating the desired behavior for our teams. Speaking up, respectfully and in pursuit of truth, will show others that they can be comfortable sharing their perspective even if it differs from the rest of the group. Encouraging arguments for the sake of truth not only contribute to reaching the best possible outcomes, but also helps to build the team’s trust.

To answer the original question, yes – my wife and I do argue well. We listen to each other and resolve conflicts with a spirit of love and trying to make things better. Arguing is one of the best ways we get to understand each other and, at the end, through our love and respect, we always win.

KEY TAKEAWAY: Arguments for the sake of truth can be productive and important to reaching the best conclusion for your organization. Leaders that foster an environment where these types of arguments take place can encourage teamwork, trust, and positive outcomes.

How Rituals Keep the Main Thing the Main Thing

I was honored with the opportunity to offer a devotional at Adventist HealthCare’s November 5th Mission in Motion conference for its organizational leaders. Here are my remarks:

Good afternoon, colleagues and friends. My name is Jonathan Sachs and I serve as the Associate Vice President for Patient Experience at Adventist HealthCare.

Thank you for the opportunity to share a word of devotion with you before we bless our food and enjoy a meal together.

I would like you to join me for a moment and give thought to a question that has been on my mind: What are we doing here?

We are all busy, we’re all itching to take peeks at our email, patient care at our entity’s continue on, yet we are here at this conference, away from our teams, and sitting a lot. Why?

I’m here to tell you that I figured it out, and the answer is not that our being here is a mandatory condition of employment.

The answer is far more important and deeper than that.

We are here because we are committed to our mission of extending g-d’s care through the ministry of physical, mental, and spiritual healing.

Moralist David Brooks defines commitment as, “falling in love with something and then building a structure of behavior around it for the moment when love falters”.

What we are doing today is a part of the, “structure of behavior” for how we keep love alive with our patients and with each other. According to Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (no relation), “Rituals are the framework that keeps love alive”.

I am Jewish and Judaism is well-known for its many rituals including keeping the dietary laws of kashrut, not using electricity on the sabbath, and men wearing a skullcap (called a kippah) to remind us that g-d is always with us and above us. We do this because, without it, without this structure of behavior, we would lose our commitment to living in faith and doing good deeds when we need g-d the most.

If you have ever been to a Jewish service, you may see the men wearing a prayer shawl with fringes on it. We call the fringes “tzitzit” [pictured] and the reason for their being comes from Numbers 37 in the Torah, which says, “The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the children of Israel and tell them to make for themselves fringes on the corners of their garments through the generations…and you shall look upon them and remember all the commandments of the Lord and fulfill them, and you will not follow after your heart and after your eyes by which you go astray – so that you may remember and fulfill all My commandments and be holy to your g-d.”


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We wear the tzitzit because g-d acknowledges our humanity. G-d wants us to “keep the main thing [of doing the good deeds he commands us], the main thing” but knows that we are human and so we are likely to forget or lose track of the main thing in the midst of our busy-ness. For that reason, G-d himself commands Moses to build rituals for us that remind us to stay on track. As leaders, it is up to us to do the same for our team members.

Our teams can lose their way because the world keeps us busy and what we need to do to survive on a daily basis is hard, consuming, and urgent. But often the most important things are those that are non-urgent: Did I say, “I love you” to my spouse and children today? Did I thank a team member for extending g-d’s care in a new way? Did I keep the main thing, the main thing?

Organizational rituals, like today’s conference, like “our main thing”, and like our leadership system are tools for us to use as leaders to keep our commitment to our patients and to build structures of behavior to make sure we never forget what is most important and why we are here.

I always circle the Mission in Motion conference on my calendar because it is a ritual where I get to learn from our speakers and reconnect with you. It renews my commitment to the spirit of our mission and I always look forward to it.

As we go about today, I hope you will join me in thinking of new ways to build rituals in to our daily work so that we stay connected to what is most important more often than just twice a year at this conference. Think about sharing stories or asking questions of your team to keep why we are here at the tops of their minds. By doing so, we will lead team members with purpose, not just with urgency.

Invent new rituals to keep the commitment to our mission alive. Our team and our patients are counting on us.

Let us pray:

Blessed are you lord g-d, king of the universe, for bringing us to this mission in motion conference. Let today be a ritual that creates daily rituals throughout our healthcare system that allow us as human beings to never forget how to achieve our mission of extending your care.

G-d, Please bless our patients as they heal and bless our caregivers as their healers. We are here to support their work, give them guidance, and to nourish their commitment by helping them see the big picture.

As we continue to lunch today, please bless our food.

Baruch atah adonai eloheinu melech ha’olam, she-hakol ni-hyea bidvaro

Blessed are you, lord our g-d, King of the Universe, by whose word all things came to be. And let us say, Amen.