Jason Byassee: Tell me a story

Is any task more important to leadership than storytelling?

Is any task more important to leadership than storytelling?

A recent opinion piece in the local paper reminded me of this point. The writer began his attack on North Carolina’s current state government with an apt comparison. He started with a reference to the seemingly ageless TV show “60 Minutes.” Why has it been so successful so long? To its creator and producer Don Hewett, the answer was simple: “Tell them a story.” The writer praised several former governors for telling North Carolinians a story that organized our political life. Post-reconstruction lethargy left us as a “Rip Van Winkle state,” the writer argued, until more energetic leadership under a string of governors made us “the Dixie Dynamo”-- progressive, expansive economically, more cosmopolitan and a more coveted place to live.

One of those governors was Terry Sanford, later a president of Duke. While governor he asked why central North Carolina should not have a tech corridor to rival any in the country? He told the story so well that a certain computer company, IBM, decided in 1965 to build a major engineering and manufacturing facility in the upstart Research Triangle Park. As president of Duke, Sanford told another story that reshaped people’s expectations. Duke should be a place of “outrageous ambition,” he said. Why should we not go from being a good regional university to one of international renown? In asking the question, in telling the story, Sanford helped others envision and build the reality that is Duke today.

I caught another glimpse of the importance of storytelling recently, when I met with a pastor who has a big dream. Her church has an organic garden that is leading her local community to envision an agricultural future after tobacco. The neighbors who help the church people tend the garden are eating healthier and doing more physical work, and so are likely to live longer lives. In short this church is what Leadership Education calls a “thriving community”-- it is improving the life of its whole community.

But this pastor wants to push the vision farther. She imagines a retreat center where pastors can come and be refreshed in their vocation. They can get their hands dirty in a garden and eat better than they do in their parishes. They can write and worship and pray -- and remember why they minister. “I don’t understand spreadsheets, and I don’t have a business plan,” she said. But she has a dream. And she can tell a compelling story about it. I wouldn’t bet against her. A vision that robust is likely to outlast not only this economic downturn but also her. Reinhold Niebuhr said “Nothing worth doing can be accomplished in a single lifetime. Therefore we are saved by hope.”

I remember a story from the falsely titled book “Everything I Ever Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten." Though I learned of the story in college, I’m only now seeing the wisdom of it. It is about the building of Chartres Cathedral in France during the Middle Ages. Though it is hard for us to conceive, the people of Chartres built the magnificent structure knowing that, for most, it would not be completed in their lifetimes. One day a man approached Chartres to see how it was coming. He passed one man covered in dust and asked what he was doing. “I’m cutting stone,” the man said. He passed another covered in sweat and dirt and asked him the same. “I’m laying stone,” he said. Finally he arrived at the cathedral and saw a woman sweeping the floor. He asked what she was doing, though he could see it plainly enough. “I’m building a cathedral for the glory of God,” she said, answering truer than the others.

Leadership is about telling a story of who we are, what we are doing and where we are going. In Christian terms, it’s about describing how what we’re up to is part of God’s coming kingdom, and how we’re invited to join in it building now. So if you want to lead me, tell me a story, and if you want to lead me as a Christian, remind me how this all fits into the glory of God.