“The Story Needs A Great Storyteller” – Alan Rickman (Severus Snape) Reminds Us Of The Centrality of Story
It is an ancient need to be told stories. But the story needs a great storyteller. Thanks for all of it, Jo.
Alan Rickman, speaking to/of Jo Rowling, shortly after his “final moments” as Severus Snape
In Encouraging the Heart, Kouzes and Posner write:
Marshall McLuhan is reported to have said, “Those who think there’s a difference between education and entertainment don’t know the first thing about either one.”
Good stories move us. They touch us, they teach us, and they cause us to remember. They enable the listener to put the behavior in a real context and understand what has to be done in that context to live up to expectations.
We need more, a lot more!, good communication going on in the corporate world. This is a really nice reminder that story – good storytelling – is at the heart of all good communication.
Here’s the full letter:
Adam Bryant conducts interviews of senior-level executives that appear in his “Corner Office” column each week in the SundayBusiness section of The New York Times. Here are a few insights provided during an interview of Amy Gutmann, president of the University of Pennsylvania, who says it’s important to be open to “wild and crazy ideas” because universities are all about ideas — “and if we’re not open to them, if I’m not open to them, who is going to be?”
To read the complete interview and Bryant’s interviews of other executives, please click here.
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Welcoming the Wild Ideas of the Week
Bryant: What do you consider some of your most important leadership lessons?
Gutmann: The biggest influences on me for leading preceded my ever even thinking of myself as a leader — particularly my father’s experience leaving Nazi Germany. Because I would not even exist if it weren’t for his combination of courage and farsightedness. He saw what was coming with Hitler and he took all of his family and left for India. That took a lot of courage. That is always something in the back of my mind. And my mother was a child of the Depression and so she triumphed against all odds.
To me, those two things are really important about leadership, to have courage and to be farsighted in your vision, not to be just reacting to the next small challenge. It probably wouldn’t be as important as it now seems to me if that hadn’t been something that gets repeated over and over in my experience.
Bryant: Were you in leadership roles as a teenager?
Gutmann: As a teenager, I loved math. I loved solving puzzles and I was the captain of the math team and I did all the leadership things that you would do in a public high school. But my challenge in high school was also fitting in — it was a fairly homogenous community — because my father was an immigrant. The challenge of leadership is precisely the opposite. It’s not to fit in. It’s to have combined passion with purpose, and the most inspiring and successful leaders, I think, don’t fit in.
Bryant: So how did you square that over time?
Gutmann: I was the first person in my high school to go to Radcliffe. But, interestingly, when I got there I realized that fitting in was no longer conforming. It was having bold ideas and taking risks, smart risks and branching out beyond one’s comfort zone. And when I got to college, all of a sudden I realized that I was much more social than I ever thought, and that I really liked bringing people together to do things.
Bryant: Besides your parents, who were big influences for you?
Gutmann: Every excellent teacher I’ve ever had has had a really strong influence on me, beginning with my eighth-grade math teacher who made math exciting. I loved math anyway, but I saw him motivating kids who didn’t love math. And so I learned what Emerson said: “Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm.” Besides enthusiasm, I would add hard, smart work.
Bryant: How would you describe your leadership style today?
Gutmann: I love challenges and I’m enthusiastic about taking them on with a team, and my team knows that I like good ideas even when I disagree with them, that I’m hard-driving but also reward everybody on the team who combines passion, smarts and hard work.
I’ve also written a lot about the importance of deliberation, and we practice it. We bring everybody to the table and I like to say, in any given week, “this is my wild idea for the week.” We don’t execute more than half of them, but those ideas that we put into practice, everybody was at the table and I think gets the same kind of excitement and satisfaction that I get out of it.
What I’ve learned over time is that while you’re driving all of your priorities forward, it’s really important to get feedback and to be open to the wild and crazy ideas, even if you’re not going to pursue but a fraction of them. And that probably makes a lot of sense for a university because we are all about ideas. If we’re not open to them, if I’m not open to them, who is going to be?
Bryant: So you encourage others to share wild ideas?
Gutmann: I encourage other people to do it and we’re not shy about shooting them down. If it’s intended to be wild and crazy, most of them are going to be shot down. But the ones that survive, we all rally behind. And, yes, I definitely expect other people to outdo me. I think people on my team recognize that I am very straightforward.
When I believe that something is absolutely right and we have to do it, I don’t spend a lot of time deliberating about it. I just say, “We’ve got a problem here and we’ve got to solve it and tell me how to do it.” When I have a wild and crazy idea, I want them to know that I have no idea whether we can run with it, so tell me what you think and be as straightforward as I am about it.
Bryant: And do you schedule time for brainstorming?
Gutmann: I have a weekly meeting with the inglorious title, discussion group, which has no agenda other than to bring ideas to the table.
Bryant: How would you say your leadership style has evolved?
Gutmann: I’ve learned over time, in an organization that’s as large as Penn, with 31,000 employees, that you have to say a lot and to a lot of people. I think I’m much more communicative than I used to be. I used to think that if you said something once, it should be enough. If you’re a scholar and you write something once, you don’t want to repeat it over and over again. There’s no such thing as plagiarizing yourself but there is such a thing as being boring. So I communicate more, and I also do more outreach to multiple constituencies.
And I really believe in communicating in every possible way, walking around the university, e-mailing, calling, visiting people especially in their offices where they work. And I’ve started just randomly going to offices I’d never see otherwise and thanking people when they’ve done a great job but also asking them, “What’s the single thing you’re most proud of?” I ask them both because I’m genuinely interested in their answer but it’s also a check as to whether our highest priorities are reflected at the grass-roots level in the organization.
Bryant: How do you hire?
Gutmann: I am notorious at Penn among my executive team for warning people not to place too much emphasis on interviews. References, and what somebody has done, are more important than what somebody tells you in an interview. Well done is better than well said, and there’s no substitute for good referencing.
But there are things I can learn in an interview and what I do is some form of asking people, “O.K., take 10 minutes or less and tell me your life story. How did you get to where you are now?” What I’m looking for is what motivates you. It just has worked over time. I learn what’s important to people — not by them telling me what they’ve achieved in their current job or what their strengths and weaknesses are — but by asking them about their life story.
What I can learn in an interview is more motivational. It’s more about what is important to your own sense of self, and less about how skillful you are. I have to find that out from how well you did in your other jobs.
Bryant: And what are you listening for?
Gutmann: It’s less a test, actually, of whether I will hire you and more that I want to know you before I hire you. I want to know what’s important to you. I want to be able to play to your strengths and compensate for your weaknesses. I know everybody has weaknesses and if I can find out what really makes you happy, what really drives you, I might be able to find a way of making you even more successful at Penn than you were at your previous job. That’s what I try to do when I promote people, too. I know I’m going to hire people who are smart. I know I’m going to hire people who are hard-working and I’ll find that out, the hard-working part, from references.
But what I don’t know is who you are, who you think you are and what really makes you feel motivated and satisfied in your work. And I want people who love coming to work because we’re hard-working. There’s a challenge a minute, and I want people who love living up to those challenges. I have to make sure that I’ve created an environment for them that matches their motivations.
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To read the complete interview, please click here.
Adam Bryant, deputy national editor of The New York Times, oversees coverage of education issues, military affairs, law, and works with reporters in many of the Times‘ domestic bureaus. He also conducts interviews with CEOs and other leaders for Corner Office, a weekly feature in the SundayBusiness section and on nytimes.com that he started in March 2009. In his new book, The Corner Office: Indispensable and Unexpected Lessons from CEOs on How to Lead and Succeed, (Times Books), he analyzes the broader lessons that emerge from his interviews with more than 70 leaders. To read an excerpt, please click here. To contact him, please click here