The Power of Story

“Our company was losing value, and customers were turning away from us.  We had lost the power of our story.  We started as a brand committed to not only making great coffee but creating a great customer experience in an environment of committed employees.”  Howard Schultz, CEO Starbucks.

Mr. Schultz understood the importance of narrative in turning around his company.  He did not say we had lost the focus on our bottom line profits, or the taste of our coffee, or the style of our stores.  He said they had lost the narrative and it had to be saved or Starbucks was going to crash.  To his credit, he resurrected the story and the stock has followed suit. 

Every individual, company, neighborhood, institution, and nation has a story - a narrative that is being lived out - for good or bad.  Your narrative embodies the myths, conflicts, and emotions of the primary forces that are at work in making your story positive, negative, or just blah. 

For instance, as a country, what is the central narrative that embodies America?  Our core narrative is found in the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.”  And while the Declaration was the tip of the iceberg, our national narrative beneath it’s surface has been shaped over the last two and a half centuries. Great political leaders understand that whoever can craft the most compelling story for the American people is the party who wins the next election.  It’s not about rational arguments supported by lots of data. It’s about capturing the imagination of voters.  Just as it goes for nations, so it goes for companies.  Howard Schultz knew he had lost control of the Starbuck’s narrative and he had to win back the hearts of the customer.    

So let me ask you this: What is the narrative of your company or your non-profit?  What is the story you tell that resonates with purpose, meaning, and connection with your customers, your suppliers, and shareholders?  If it’s a war metaphor - defeat the other guy by being top dog in your industry - your narrative will have little traction with your customers, but will appeal to highly competitive people inside your organization.  If your central narrative is about profit - make the most money possible - your narrative makes you the villain with your customer and you will ultimately lose the  connection with your customer base. 

However, if your narrative is centered around meaning, purpose, and inspiration, you are in a great position to develop deeper loyalty with your followers.  In the beginning, Starbucks redefined coffee from being a simple commodity to also being a connector of people - one cup of coffee in one neighborhood at a time. Starbucks designed their products, services, and architecture around this narrative, down to every detail of their store.  Customers experienced what worked and did not work.  They felt which details were in alignment and which were not. When a detail was not in alignment, they let other’s know about it on Yelp.  When Howard Schultz retired, Starbucks started expanding quickly and lost focus. They tried to put stores everywhere. The stores lost their sense of intimacy and coziness. Baristas were not as well trained. Jay Leno joked that Starbucks was building a store in his closet.  So Mr. Schultz recaptured the narrative.  He now talks about each store as nurturing the human spirit through one cup of coffee, one conversation, one place at a time.  He is not into market saturation, but emphasizes the Starbucks narrative so that market growth comes through valuable customer experience. 

As you lead your company, do not overlook the power of your narrative as it is experienced through the eyes of each of your stakeholders.  Your audience wants to know why you are providing them your product or service and why they should care when they deliver that product or service as an employee or supplier.   A great answer to the  question about your narrative assures the customer, employees, and other stakeholders that you are working for more than just the money.  Your vision is much deeper than just being “a model in your industry”, or being “the largest single provider.” 

Each industry has the potential for it’s own unique narrative. In health care, for instance, a positive narrative can be anchored in a passion for health and healing.  You need to find the narrative that differentiates you from everyone else.  At United Stationers, a multi-billion dollar company which distributes office supplies, the narrative is about service to others - helping all of the stakeholders be successful. Their competitors focus more on “lowest price” - thus missing the fact that they are in the service business and must get close to their customer..

So first, develop a deep understanding of the narrative you are creating to differentiate your brand. Your narrative signals who you are — as an individual, a company, or a nation. Your narrative starts with looking back at the past -  the stories, myths, and anecdotes created by you and your company. It progresses to the present as you create relationship with your customers, suppliers, employees, shareholders, and your community.  It continues with the future - way out there - where you can create what you want  people to say and the story they will tell others. The future narrative is best when it embodies the best elements of what you can deliver in the marketplace.

Here’s a helpful exercise.  Write out, “What is the narrative of our company?” Then write out, “What do we want it to be?”  Ask others who admire you what they say about you.  Don’t worry so much about the dissenters.  Start with the admirers. Once you start to get clarity, then ask how you can take your story and express it in every detail on a daily basis in every element of your business. 

As a community of learners, I’d love to see your comments and ideas.

* If you want to learn more about the power of narrative, I recommend you visit the works of both David Altschul and John Hagel.  Both thought leaders have helped to transform, through the power of narrative, some of the biggest brands in America. 

A Father's Day Tribute: The Treasure of Tenacity

"If youre going through hell, keep going!" 
Winston Churchill

My father was a tenacious man. He retired as the Chairman of AMF Wheel Goods, which made RodeMaster Bicycles, Hercules Bicycles, and Junior Toy Tricycles.  He was one of the first to introduce Shimano Products into the U.S. market and helped create the first training wheels for children’s bikes. Dad loved life and taught me many great leadership lessons.  He had a favorite poem titled Keep A Goin’.  It’s an early twentieth century poem laden with metaphors of the outdoor life, told in a Southern style lingo.  The theme of the poem is the power of tenacity.

I can see the smile on my dad’s face and the positive swing of the arm across his chest when he would encourage me - Always keep a goin’.  His message was that with tenacity and a positive spirit, I will figure out life.  That message has served me well.  I have also since learned that it is a key attribute for any successful leader, especially an entrepreneurial leader who wants to innovate, make changes with a new product offering, design a new process, or build new culture.  A great leader will keep a goin’.  Think of Elon Musk.  After hitting it big with Pay Pal, he showed incredible tenacity when he went all in with both Tesla and Space X at the same time.  After months of missing the mark on both products, he was literally one rocket launch away from failure with Space X but refused to give up.  He had spent all of his own money, had borrowed millions of dollars, and was on the edge of complete failure.  He then launched a rocket one week prior to Christmas in 2011.  It was his third attempt.  He knew that if the third attempt failed, he was doomed.  The launch was a success.  In less than seven days, because of his tenacity and good fortune, NASA pledged 1.5 billion dollars in future space shuttles, and Space X was again infused with capital. Without incredible tenacity to win in the marketplace, both theSpace X enterprise and Tesla Motors would have been finished - but I guarantee you - Elon Musk would still not have given up as a person.  Why?  Because he has a Never Give up Spirit.  He always will keeps a goin’ - no matter how difficult life gets.

Mahatma Gandhi said, "The history of the world is full of men who rose to leadership by sheer force of self-confidence, bravery, and tenacity."  Every company and every country thriving today is indebted to a leader who made a courageous decision and said, "I'm going to solve a problem and create something new." No founder, innovator, or change master anywhere has ever had it easy.  The ingredients needed are just as the great Mahatma said, "a sheer force of self-confidence, bravery, and tenacity."  These qualities can pull a leader through the weighty forces of pulling an idea into reality.  There is no substitute for courage followed quickly by tenacity - a sheer force of the will to win.  

Here are some great innovators who understood the mantra, keep a goin’

* Thomas Edison:  His favorite quote when a light bulb solution failed was, “Ah, one more way that does not work.  I know to not try that again.” 

* Steve Jobs:  He admired tenacity in his people.  He worked until he solved a problem and he was not willing to give up until the problem was solved to his satisfaction.  He kept a goin’ until the very end.  In fact, he was working on new business solutions the week prior to his death. 

*  Peter Drucker - at 89, Forbes did a cover story on him titled, “The Youngest Mind In America.”  Now that’s a gentleman who knew what it meant to keep a goin’ and never stop.  Why?  Because it was in his character to keep creating, to stay young at heart, and to never loose his ambition to contribute - even though it required tremendous focus and hard work.  He loved it all!

We can all think of people we admire who keep a goin’.  I can’t think of a single person who would deny tenacity is a key trait of a successful business person, politician, homemaker, or any other good citizen.  I know to this day that when I feel discouraged with a problem, the poem, “Keep A Goin’” comes back into my head.  I can see dad’s smile, the twinkle in his eyes, and the enthusiasm in his voice as he would quote to me a memorable verse from the poem.  And so, here is dedication not only to my father who kept a goin’ but to all of the father’s who kept a goin’ and made our lives better as a result.  As a tribute to our fathers, the poem ends this blog.  May all of us who are inspired to make a difference in this world find encouragement, gratitude, and tenacity to, as the author says, “drain the sweetness from the cup.”


If you strike a thorn or rose,
Keep a-goin'!
If it hails or if it snows,
Keep a-goin'!
'Taint no use to sit an' whine
When the fish ain't on your line;
Bait your hook an' keep a-tryin'--
Keep a-goin'!

When the weather kills your crop,
Keep a-goin'!
Though 'tis work to reach the top,
Keep a-goin'!
S'pose you're out o' ev'ry dime,
Gittin' broke ain't any crime;
Tell the world you're feelin' prime--
Keep a-goin'!

When it looks like all is up,
Keep a-goin'!
Drain the sweetness from the cup,
Keep a-goin'!
See the wild birds on the wing, 
Hear the bells that sweetly ring,
When you feel like singin', sing--
Keep a-goin'!

 Author: by Frank L. Stanton (1857-1927)

Leadership: Unconquered in Spirit - A Tribute to Nelson Mandella


The world grieves at the passing of Nelson Mandela, and at the same time, we draw life inspiration that we too can build a better world through our leadership.  Even upon his death, Nelson Mandela is furthering the virtues of non- violent resistance, forgiveness, and reconciliation with those who have wronged us.  These ideals are contrary to our basic instincts of getting even, using violence as our means to an end, and cutting off those who have wronged us.  Mr. Mandela helped show us the wisdom of a higher way - a way that at first seems counter intuitive, but after deep reflection, becomes a way that seems obvious to bring about sustainable change.

There are many lessons we can take from the life of Mr. Mandela.  The lesson I’d like to pull from the arc of his life, is the purity of his determination to never loose faith, to never give up, and to never let another person determine the content of his character.  As the darkness of prison set in, he focused more deeply on his personal vision.  He had the deepest conviction that at some point, the arc of justice was going to bend in his favor, and he was determined to remain true to his ideals.  It has been said by many people that if you want to accomplish something, you must first expect from yourself.  Mr. Mandela wanted to bring freedom and equal opportunity to all races in South Africa.  He never wavered from what he expected of himself - to be a key part of that change.   

In his memoirs, Nelson Mandela talks about his favorite poem that sustained him in his darkest hours - alone in a prison cell sentenced for life.  I heard the poem recited from memory by Morgan Freeman, who played Mr. Mandela in the movie Invictus.  Invictus is Latin for unconquered.  The movie is named after the poem and was written in 1875 by William Ernest Henley.  It reads:  


Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.


In essence, Mr. Mandela said to himself,  "As I diligently work to change our culture and to lead a new dawn, let me draw on the wisdom of the ages, that despite all my circumstances, I can still take responsibility for one thing - my own  spirit, my own attitude, and my own plan."  He is so right! If we want to accomplish something extraordinary, we must first expect it from ourself.  As the poet said, “I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.”  I refuse to be conquered.