Years ago I worked as a process operator in an oil refinery. People often described it as "hours of intense boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror". There were a lot of stories told among the operators. Some of them reached mythical proportions about disasters, process upsets, fires, explosions, storms, or even the size of the meals that Joe ate. In truth, it was actually quite an interesting job, highly technical, deeply complex, and often much like playing a game of chess. I learned a real lesson here about stories.
The process was basically a 24/7 operation with a goal of stability. The process in itself had no beginning, middle, or end, elements that are required to make a story. Now, all of the things that got talked about - including Joe - did. They had meaning to those of us who were up working at 3 am night after night. The process itself, however, could not be told in the same way. You see, people tell the story that they can witness, observe, and experience. Without a larger context, the only stories we observed were those within our local folklore. While there was a business story that our process lived within, we could not see it. Eventually I saw a real leader show up there, who began to engage people in a much larger story based on the business of refining. Lo and behold, it had meaning, and it connected with people. This was real engagement of the hearts as well as our minds and our efforts. It was amazing to see and experience the difference it created. I have recently been spending more time around the entertainment world, and this brings to light another aspect of storytelling.
Here people are really in touch with how a story connects to the people who will be watching it. People want to be entertained - however - entertainment does not necessarily mean that they are laughing and smiling. Perhaps it makes more sense if you think of it like this. People want to be engaged. They want to be moved in their own humanity. They want stories to relate to what it is like to be on this planet. Let's face it, life is not about a long series of work assignments and tasks. It is about living. Now, we all work at something, the trick is to make sure that the work we do has some purpose to it, some meaning, and engages us as being part of a larger story. The last piece of this is for leaders. People can become as engaged in a bad story as they can in a good one. We have all seen or even experienced group bonding over a common pain. However, this is usually not constructive. During the time I spent as an operator, the folklore taught most of the lessons, and most of the time it was not good.
When we had a better story, we told it, and we lived it. It is a requirement of leaders to tell the story of why the people are there from the highest level, with a way to connect through to the lowest level. It is a requirement for leaders to provide these key elements of meaning in a way that people can find useful. This opens the door for people to bring their hearts and minds to what they are doing. If you don't have this story down, get it down now. Get clear on the story of why you are here, what you are trying to accomplish, and why it matters at all in the grander scheme. Send it to me. I'd like to hear it. So, take some time, take some notes, and change your life!