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So, What’s Your Story?

The mission of my first assignment in the corner office was to turn the business around. Bleeding cash, lacking sustainable IT and other infrastructure, and having suffered through a bad leadership episode, the company was teetering on the brink of failure. My first impression as CEO of the company (

Lifewatch, then called Cardiolife) was that there were some quality people on the management team who lacked a sense of direction. Most odd was that the hallways were plastered with motivational quotes – framed posters of great photographs adorned with lofty phrases about teamwork or exhorting people to “Make It Happen.”

When I asked people about them, they all shrugged and said my predecessor had hung them to motivate the staff. It was clear that their presence was widely viewed as a joke. So, I removed them. A big part of my job was to change the culture. Lofty phrases not backed by authentic leadership would no longer be part of the landscape. I had learned long ago that the first step in changing the culture of any organization was to do something both physical and visible. This was the first such move.

“If you need to make a big change, make sure you do something physical and visible. People don’t believe what you say. They believe what you do. Something physical and visible serves as evidence that you are making a change.” Excerpt From: John Calia. “The Reluctant CEO.” iBooks.

Another lesson I’ve learned is that whenever you remove something you must know what you are replacing it with. There was not just a new boss; there was a new story.

Writing in Psychology Today, Madelyn Blair, Ph.D., tells us “the narratives we create about our lives directly influence our futures.” That works for institutions, like businesses, as well as for individuals. So, creating a new story is critical to advancing the cause. Dr. Blair advises us to override the “autopilot” of the narrative-making process and “retake manual control.” Writing the new story requires “self-knowledge, self-awareness, and authenticity.” Otherwise, we might be subject to what Rodgers and Hart called, in an old song, “the self deception that believes the lie.” (Note: R&H wrote the line in a totally different context.)

While the story you tell yourself matters, the story you tell your team matters as much or more. In an earlier post (

This is where we’re going; this is why we’re going there), I suggested that leaders develop a stump speech that can be repeated often enough to ensure that an organization’s direction is stated clearly and briefly.

In another study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Ted Kolditz, the former head of the Department of Behavioral Sciences and Leadership at West Point, tracked more than 10,000 Army leaders from their entrance to into West Point through graduation and their careers. When comparing the performance of those whose focus was on performance based criteria (extrinsic values) and those whose focus was on the “moral relationship between the leader and the led” (intrinsic values), values based leadership outperforms in nearly all cases.

“You should let your values influence your behavior, your choices and your emotions. Your values give you purpose for getting up in the morning.” Excerpt From: John Calia. “The Reluctant CEO.” iBooks.

Net message… It’s imperative that leaders develop a narrative about the institutions they lead, one that connects the team to the larger cause or the mission. However, unless you connect values and behavior to that story, you can’t lead effectively.

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