Great leaders understand that significant change takes the energy and talent of other people. Tell stories that illustrate how your listener fits into the picture.



Once upon a time, in the late 1970s, there was a young prince named Andy Grove. Andy was the CEO of Intel Inc. Andy's company had a very focused product line: computer memory chips. Intel was the best and biggest producer of computer memory chips in the world.

However, far, far away in the land of Japan, Japanese manufacturers were creating their own memory chips. They were faster and less expensive than Intel's chips. Intel tried to hang on to market share by seeking out niche markets for their chips and by improving the quality of the company's products. All to no avail, for Intel's share of the market and profits continued to dwindle. Shareholders were not happy.

During this crisis, Grove walked into Gordon Moore's office and asked him a compelling question.

"If we get kicked out, and the board brings on a new CEO, what do you think he'd do?"

Moore, also a co-founder of Intel, replied, "He'd probably get us out of memory chips."

Grove said, "Why shouldn't you and I walk out the door, come back, and do it ourselves?"

They decided to abandon Intel's biggest business - memory - and move into uncharted waters - microprocessors. It was a gutsy move that ultimately saved the company.

And they all lived happily ever after.

OK, I don't know about happily ever after, but I do know that currently Intel has more than an 80 percent market share in the microprocessor industry. If you have Intel stock, you may live well, ever after.

Andy Grove uses this story to demonstrate how Intel responded to the market and instituted changes. (In his version, he probably skips the "prince" part.) He uses the story to create a change-tolerant culture at his company. Andy could just announce to his employees that they need to adapt easily to change and the company must take great risks to survive and thrive. He could simply tell his employees he is a great leader. But, it works better to tell the story.

Author Noel M. Tichy tells this story about Andy Grove and describes how winning companies create leaders at every level in his terrific book The Leadership Engine. In the book, Tichy examines leaders like Grove, Dick Notebart of Ameritech and Jack Welch of General Electric, looking for clues as to what makes a great leader. Leaders, he found, develop more leaders. In this way, they create a company that can continue to win. Tichy says, "Six characteristics define winning leaders: teaching, learning, ideas, values, energy and edge. The ultimate hallmark of world class, champion leaders is the ability to weave all the other elements together into vibrant stories that lead their organizations into the future."

Defining Leadership

Leadership is all about change. It's about getting people to follow you into the unknown. To get people to see the future, start by taking them there in their imaginations. Tell them a story.

Great leaders tell great stories. Tichy describes three kinds of stories that make up a great leader's storyline. You can learn the elements of these stories to help you develop your own storyline and hone your leadership skills.

"Who I Am" Stories: These stories explain who you are and how you came to be that way. Often, these are stories from your childhood. Did you have to walk 6 miles to school each day? Did you drop out of school to run the family business when your dad got sick? Did you marry your high school sweetheart 47 years ago, and do you still hold hands at the movies? These stories illustrate your strengths and values and let folks know what makes you tick. Are you competitive? That can be a powerful leadership trait. Instead of announcing, "I am competitive," tell a story about winning the city championship in high school wrestling.

"Who We Are" Stories: Martin Luther King galvanized the Civil Rights movement by declaring, "If I am stopped, this movement will not stop. Kill me, but know that if you do, you have 50,000 more to kill." Through his speeches, his stories, King created a nation of activists. He made people understand their role and responsibilities in his dream. Great leaders understand that significant change takes the energy and talent of other people. Tell stories that illustrate how your listener fits into the picture.

"Future" Stories: It's not enough to have a vision. Can you craft a story that describes why you are heading in that direction and what it will take to get there? Steve Case, the resilient leader of America Online, has survived dozens of cash crises, an 18 hour site crash, class action lawsuits and name calling ("America On Hold!"). Bill Gates himself threatened to bury AOL, but he has only managed to wrest a few customers from them. How did Case and seriously underfunded AOL pull off such an unlikely victory? In Kara Swisher's fascinating book aol.com, she reveals Case's mantra: "AOL would be everywhere."As Swisher explains, "Someday, somehow, Case dreamed, his service would be in America's dens, living rooms, kitchens, offices and malls. And the elitists who ran most Internet companies - the doubters of this singular vision, the ones who told him he was going down so many times - they had always been wrong and they would be wrong once again." This is what Case communicated to his employees. He painted the picture for them. The employees in turn called Case "The Wall" because of his ability to ignore the criticism and threats of the rest of the world and stay focused on his vision.

We are "wired" to learn from stories. Think back to your kindergarten days. Remember when your teacher would read you a story? You would gather with your classmates in a semicircle at her feet, and prop your chin on your hands. You would listen to the words and look at the pictures when she turned the book around for you to see. Wasn't it wonderful?

We haven't outgrown our love of stories. And telling a story is the best way to make a point, make a sale or teach a lesson. As a small shop operator, do you really need to develop the leadership strategies used by CEOs of billion dollar companies? Well, you may not need to lead 10,000 employees, but wouldn't it be nice to convince your one employee that you have a bright, exciting future in store for him? Maybe your wife is resisting the move to flat-rate pricing, but you really want to make the change. We are all selling something, and stories can help.

Crafting Your Tale

You can learn to be a better storyteller. First, study great story tellers. Pay a visit to Dan Holohan's Web site, www.heatinghelp.com. Dan isn't a roofing contractor. However, he is a first-class teacher because he tells terrific stories. Dan says the key to teaching is to attach something your student doesn't know to something with which he is familiar.

Dan explains sophisticated technical stuff in simple terms. Like this: "A circulator pump in a hydronic heating system is like the motor in a Ferris wheel. It doesn't lift, it just turns." See how he attaches the unknown to the familiar? Then, Dan will go on to tell a terrific story about a heating system at a carnival and pull the whole thing together. He's good at this. You can learn a lot from him.

Second, search your past for material. What were the turning points in your life? Sometimes they are dramatic events: a divorce, a bankruptcy, or a serious illness. Work the lessons learned into your stories. Stories can also grow from everyday experiences: waiting in line for an hour at Wal-Mart only to discover that they won't take your check, or missing your kid's soccer game, again, because you had to work late. Find life events that forged your values and dreams.

Finally, tell the tale. Good opportunities for storytelling are the company picnic, the weekly meeting and the holiday party. Make it a point to tell the company's story to every new employee within the first week on the job. Practice your stories as you ride along with an employee on the way to a job. Craft the story, work it, refine it with each telling.

Learn to share your stories to sell, to teach, and to lead. And you can live happily ever after, too.