Oct 13 2015

NASCIO 2015: Stories Are Key to Effective Leadership

The conference’s opening keynote explains how narrative storytelling can transform organizations, empower employees and deepen loyalty.

For a leader to be effective, he or she must engage with the workforce. The workplace is full of diversity, and managers must connect with employees to elevate efficiency and create buy-in.

Jason Allen Ashlock, founding partner of Frontier Press, the publishing arm of the Frontier Project, delivered the opening keynote to a packed room at this year’s NASCIO annual conference in Salt Lake City.

“Stories kick-start the idea of retention,” Ashlock said. “If you want to change someone’s behavior, what works better than punishments or rewards is a story of how changing could better them.”

Lighting the Way to Change

Ashlock then told a story about a distillery in Scotland. The distillery made their farthest deliveries on Monday and their closest deliveries on Friday, with the rest in between. A young employee questioned this process, claiming that it did not make sense. Every time this young man would bring up change, he was met with opposition. What he didn’t know was that during World War II, when gasoline was in short supply, the distillery used horses for deliveries, as they had done before they had vehicles. Horses would be the freshest in the beginning of the week and the most tired at the end of the week. So it made sense to make the deliveries this way, and the process continued for decades after horses were no longer used.

The young employee’s constant questioning led the distillery to change its delivery process to one that was more efficient. “The distillery calls this a lighthouse story,” said Ashlock “because stories like this help show you the light and guide you from smashing against the rocks.” The distillery now tells this story to every new employee, he said, to encourage them in asking questions.

The Shape of a Story

Ashlock then went on to explain that all great stories have a similar shape. Stories run on two axes: The first axis is “G and I” — good fortune and ill fortune — and the second axis is “B and E” — beginning and end. Ashlock explained that you start somewhere on the first axis, rise up to a great height, come crashing down, and then rise back up to the top by the end of the story. “It’s the movement and motion that keeps you reading,” he added.  “Without this, your listeners will become disengaged with you.”

After numerous examples of this type of story shape, including The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, The Brady Bunch and Cinderella,” Ashlock said, “The takeaway is not the movement, but the pivots.”

The first pivot is “Once,” where the beginning is discussed; the second pivot is “But,” which occurs right before the crash (we need to see our hero face a challenge); the third pivot is “Until,” where the protagonist starts to make things happen; and the final pivot is “At Last,” where the world has returned to normal and everything is good again.

Ashlock also mentioned that all great stories travel the same geography as well. He spoke about “narrative identity” research at Northwestern University and stressed, “Our productivity decreases in periods when we are in narrative black.” We need to be able to relate to others through our past stories.

Story Archetypes

Ashlock concluded by saying, “We only have five stories to tell.” Those are:

  1. Quests: Indiana Jones and The Lord of the Rings fall into this category. Ashlock also talked about the store Best Buy and their quest to avoid bankruptcy, which included turning retail stores into distribution centers for one-day shipping, leasing space in Best Buy stores to partners to reduce overhead, and rolling out kiosks for travelers to buy technology at airports. Is your story big enough?
  2. A Stranger in a Strange Land: We need translators to help us understand. Tone down the expertise and speak in common language.
  3. Love Story: Ashlock told of how Westin Hotels and New Balance are partnering to provide Westin business travelers with shoes and athletic clothes to work out in when they are on the road. The hotel then cleans the shoes and clothes so they can be used by the next traveler. “The greatest love stories are odd couples,” he said. “Find your odd couple to partner with.”
  4. Rags to Riches: “These are the stories we love to tell the most,” Ashlock commented.
  5. Revenge: We are more the same than ever before. Take back your individuality.

“Take the storytelling tools and use them for your journey,” Ashlock concluded. He provided the room with what makes a story and how we as humans relate and respond to narratives. The better the stories that we tell our employees, the more engaged they will be in the work.

For more NASCIO 2015 coverage, head here.

Digital Vision./Thinkstock