Serving Leaders Make Someone Else the Hero of the Story!

Here’s a problem leaders face every day. You want to get something done. It will take everyone in your organization to do it. How will you get them pulling in the same direction?

You could go around and have a heart-to-heart with each person in the organization. You could explain in detail the role each person should play and how they are supposed to do it.

That might work…if you have three people in your organization. In a larger group, you’d be spending a huge amount of time and you still wouldn’t know whether or not your people “get it” until you saw them in action.

You’d also be accused of “micro-management”—and your accusers would be right. Why tell other people how to do their jobs, which is something they might already know better than you do?

You don’t need to tell them how to do it. You need to make sure they know what needs to be done. And the best way to do that just might be through telling a story.

Express “Commander’s Intent”

There isn’t anywhere on earth where having people pulling together is more important than on the battlefield. It could literally make the difference between life and death.

Chip Heath & Dan Heath, in their book Made to Stick, describe how the U.S. Army gave up on the idea of fighting by a detailed plan prepared in advance. Instead, since the 1980’s, the Army focuses on what it calls Commander’s Intent.

“Commander’s Intent,” they say, “manages to align the behavior of soldiers at all levels without requiring play-by-play information from their leaders. When people know the desired destination, they’re free to improvise, as needed, in arriving there.”

The Army recommends that officers ask themselves two questions:

  1. If we do nothing else during tomorrow’s mission, we must __________.
  2. The single, most important thing we must do tomorrow is __________.

But is that enough to let people in the field know what needs to be done?

Make It Practical by Telling a Story

Let’s take Commander’s Intent from the battlefield to the boardroom. The Heaths quote the former CEO of Southwest Airlines, Herb Kelliher: “We are THE low-fare airline. Once you understand that fact, you can make any decision about this company’s future as well as I can.”

You and I might suspect it’s not that simple. And we’d be right!

Listen to this story told by Kelliher himself:

Tracy from Marketing comes into your office. She says her surveys indicate that the passengers might enjoy a light entrée on the Houston to Las Vegas flight. All we offer is peanuts, and she thinks a nice chicken salad would be popular. What do you say?

You say, “Tracy, will adding that chicken salad make us THE low-fare airline from Houston to Las Vegas? Because if it doesn’t help us become the unchallenged low-fare airline, we’re not serving any damn chicken salad.”

Notice what happened here. It’s all about stories.

  • Kelliher thought stating Commander’s Intent in the form of a principle–We are THE low-fare airline–would settle all questions. But it didn’t. Tracy from Marketing still brought him the question, and she was right to do so. It’s her job. From then on, though, she would forever tell the story of the time she proposed adding chicken salad and the way her boss answered her in a simplistic way. The story would guide her actions and her colleagues’ until the end of time. (For good, or for ill. That’s the power of a story.)
  • The Heaths discussed Commander’s Intent in the abstract, and then they found themselves telling Kelliher’s story. And they were right to do so. You and I might have trouble remembering Commander’s Intent, especially if we’ve never been in the Army. But whether you identify with the CEO or the marketer, you’ll remember the story. 

Making Heroes

When we tell stories, we lead in a way that’s practical. Stories allow us and our teams to put ourselves in advance in situations we might have to face, and figure out the best response.

Serving leaders can go one step further, however.  We can make our staff the heroes of the story. Tell the story of your company in a way that lets every staff person feel he or she could make the difference and you will never worry about micro-managing again.

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