Amos was an old Askari, a night watchman in the highlands of Kenya. He told me once how electricity had come to their village and that it made him sad because they no longer gathered around the fire together to tell stories. Instead, each stayed in his own house, enthralled by the light and all the change it heralded.
In Owen Eastwood’s excellent book, ‘Belonging’, he points out how deeply rooted stories are in tribal communities as an explanation of meaning and belonging. Stories that explain who we are, where we came from and what we stand for. The stories explain unwritten expectations of each other, what is to be valued and aspired towards and what to avoid or despise. What it means and requires to belong.
In our own times we are not short of stories, most of us probably have at least two subscription services, but perhaps we are short of meaning.
Many businesses spend a lot of time thinking about their values. Many get as far as writing platitudeness abstractions on walls and posters; respect, innovation, integrity and so forth. A few get further than this and write something real in words that connect with people and start to have meaning, reflecting some sense of personality with an authentic voice.
Yet vanishingly few can illuminate this aspiration and conjure it to life with stories. The lesson that persistence matters and that a determination to keep turning up and moving forward toward your goals is rather dry and easily forgotten. The story of a hare racing a tortoise is less easily put aside. The absurdity of the unequal contest, the all too human characteristics of the protagonists and the layers of metaphor show well how a tale might endure re-telling over thousands of years.
As leaders, if we want to be deliberate about how we nurture and build the kind of culture we want, we must be able to communicate it. A big part of that is in the example we set in our own behaviour, but we should also be able to tell stories that give life and meaning to our culture. After all, if our story is weak then we are weak too.
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