Narrator in Chief

“The mistake of my first term… was thinking that this job was just about getting the policy right.”  In an interview recently with Charlie Rose, President Obama explained: “And that’s important.  But the nature of this office is also to tell a story to the American people that gives them a sense of unity and purpose and optimism, especially during tough times.  Being in a conversation with them about where we need to go as a country.”

In my own journey through the recession and recovery, as CEO of a consulting company that works in the fields of communication, leadership and organizational alignment, I operated much as the President has, focusing on the mechanics and details of the policies and practices that would effectively guide my company through this age of disruption.  I managed effectively, creating action plans, driving agendas, closely managing cash flow.  But was it enough?  No.  Not by a long shot.

Why?  Because that approach got me stuck inside the bubble and the essential connection with my people suffered.  I’ve been preaching for years that the first responsibility of any CEO, or president, is to be the chief storyteller for their company.  So following my own advice, I diligently crafted and told our story as it unfolded.  But I wasn’t always effective and wondered why not.  The answer, as I came to realize it over time, lies in the powerful difference between story and narrative.

Stories are evocative.  Much has been written about the power of stories as a learning tool, a rallying point, a vehicle for entertainment and escape.  But only when we thread the multiple stories of our daily lives together, do we achieve something more compelling – a narrative sweep.  Stories are episodes.  Narrative articulates the journey of all those episodes taken together.  Narrative expresses the larger arc and direction.  Narrative provides a compass.

Everyday there are many stories being told in our workplaces.  Every strategy we articulate, every policy we implement is a story unto itself.  But only when we weave the tapestry of all those stories together can we begin to experience the meaning of the journey we’re on.  That is really our job as CEO’s and Presidents – to be the chief narrators of our businesses.  And that is job one for President Obama.  We need him to tell us the narrative created when all the policy initiatives are viewed collectively.  What does that perspective mean for us?  Where are we headed?  How is each policy an enactment of the larger narrative?  

Why?  Because narrative touches our hearts and minds, lights our imaginations, invites dialogue, encourages alignment, creates context and provides meaning.  And as a consequence, motivates action.

Our country is founded on a set of ideals.  When, as a people, we don’t have the opportunity to discuss them, to connect to them, to experience them in action, we become enraged and lose our way.  When there is no meaningful narrative to connect with, we lose faith and trust in our leaders.

This is especially true in disruptive times like today.  FDR knew this and wove stories of policy decisions and international strategy into a broader narrative with great regularity, reminding us of who we were as a people, as a nation.  Lincoln’s narrative, even when the country appeared irreparably fractured, was unwavering in affirming to every sector of the populace that the Union was indivisible.

Finally, good narratives win elections.  In 2004, Bush’s simple and direct narrative trumped that of Kerry’s, which was intellectually complex and obscure.  The same is true of Obama in 2008 and his straightforward through line entitled – Yes, we can.  Once more this year, an election will be won by the man who can create a narrative that sustains us, that reminds us of who we are and provides a compass for where we are going.  But candidates and elected officials must understand that narrative is not a tool reserved for campaign cycles.  Once elected, it is a leader’s role to carry the dialogue of meaning with purposeful direction throughout their terms of office.

 And the same is true for anyone in a leadership position.  We are more than policy makers, managers and result producers.   We must first be narrators.