Legends never die

Remember kid, there’s heroes and there’s legends. Heroes get remembered but legends never die, follow your heart kid, and you’ll never go wrong.

Babe Ruth’s Ghost from The Sandlot

Over the 4th of July, I turned on one of my favorite movies, The Sandlot, which is a story about friendship, community, and baseball. I have probably seen this movie hundreds of times, mostly wearing out the VHS tape at my parent’s house when I was a child.

One of my favorite scenes in the movie happens when Babe Ruth’s ghost visits one of the main characters in the movie, Benny “The Jet” Rodriguez in a dream. The ghost leaves Benny with these words, “Remember kid, there’s heroes and there’s legends. Heroes get remembered but legends never die, follow your heart kid, and you’ll never go wrong”.

Heroes, of course, are people. We look up to them, we learn from them, and we follow their example. But like all people, they are mortal and will eventually pass away.

Legends, or stories, however, are different. It brings our memories to life and they create powerful feelings of interconnectedness.

This difference between heroes and legends has become even more clear to me recently. A few months ago, I bought an ancestry DNA kit and have used it to build out my family tree. It is a wonderful exercise and one I recommend for everyone who wants to learn more about their heritage. Through ancestry, I was able to map back three generations. But what are simply names in census data can “come to life” once again through stories.

For example, my great grandfather, Herman Sachs, was a talented painter. Before he passed away, my grandfather, Arnie Sachs, told me a story that Great-Grandpa Herman asked him one morning what color he wanted his room to be painted. My grandfather answered smartly, “knotty pine,” and when he arrived home his room looked like the inside of a tree!

When I think of that story, in a way it brings my Great-Grandpa Herman back to life, in a way. He has become more than a name now for me. The story gave me some color-commentary, an indication of his personality and talent. The “legend” gives me a lens into who he was and it is a story I will pass down to my own son, Aaron. Stories like this one makes me realize that for so many of my other relatives, I have only names, a small piece of who they were without the legend. While it is hard for me to remember most of their names, Great-Grandpa Herman’s is one I will always remember.

As leaders, the stories we tell (and are told about us) are powerful influences on how we accomplish our goals. Stories that we tell can help us contextualize the direction we set, and can be used to cement that direction to our teams’ collective memory. Stories that are told about us can either inspire confidence, faith, and trust, or they can work against us. That is why leading by example is so important, as those are the stories the team tells each other about us when we are not present.

The more leaders can integrate storytelling into their presentations and other methods of communication, the better their teams will be able to follow and spread the important messages. A good story has an exponential effect when it is told multiple times to better reinforce and embed it into the culture.

If you are a leader, the legends you tell will endure as part of the fabric of your organization. Further the legends that are told about you will be your legacy.

Knowing the power of the story and its enduring capabilities, what will you do next?

KEY TAKEAWAY: Storytelling is an important tool in a leader’s toolbox. It can help them spread the message and create a positive team culture. It can also work against them if they are not leading by example.

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:

Transformational leaders communicate and connect

As we discussed in the last post about Starbucks founder Howard Schultz, transformational leaders are effective communicators. Not only do they share important information with the leadership team to create clarity and focus, but they also communicate important ideas with the entire team.

I recently watched the TED Talk linked below about what happens to our brains when we communicate effectively. The implications for understanding the science is both intuitive while simultaneously being amazing to see. Please watch it here:

As Dr. Hasson illustrates, good storytellers have an ability to connect with an audience. Effective storytelling causes the audience to connect with the speaker, hear similar information as others around them, and then share it with other people, creating a multiplier effect. Honing the ability to communicate for this type of impact is an advantageous competency for transformational leaders. 

While some leaders are better communicators than others, almost all transformational leaders have the ability to connect through public speaking. The bad news is that many people fear public speaking or are honestly not very good at it. One of my least favorite activities is going to a conference and going to a session with a boring speaker.

The good news is that it is very attainable to become a better public speaker. Carmine Gallo, the author of Five Stars and Talk Like TED gives some solid advice about how to improve public speaking going all the way back to Aristotle. He explains what it takes to tell a good story, learning from Hollywood. He also describes how much preparation and homework go into developing a good talk.

Connecting in the way Dr. Hasson describes is an essential skill for transformational leaders. Learning how to do so is the first step because not everyone is born as a natural storyteller. But it is a skill that can be learned.

KEY TAKEAWAY: Transformational leaders use stories and effective public speaking techniques to connect with their audiences. The science shows what happens when a speaker and audience’s brains connect and it is what builds understanding and movements towards change.