Storytelling in leadership

An underlying assumption in my entire thread on storytelling, not to mention the book I’m writing, is that stories are the fundamental thought structures of the human mind.

Storytelling is inevitable, in other words. We do not make sense of the world except by telling stories about it.

So I was intrigued to see this piece in Foreign Policy by George Akerlof (left), an economist at Berkeley, and Robert Shiller (right) at Yale. (Thanks once again to Jag Bhalla for the link.)

The two argue that stories also influence the optimism and pessimism of, and toward, entire nations and economies.

They give the fascinating example of José López Portillo (left), a Mexican president of the 70s and 80s, who presented his country, Mexico, in the context of an ancient story about the Aztec god Quetzalcóatl (also the title of a novel López Portillo had once written). The god was expected to reappear at a special time to make Mexico great again.

As it happened, this was during the oil shocks of the 70s and oil was being discovered in Mexico. Perhaps Quetzalcóatl’s time was now? It did not go unnoticed that the presidential jets were named Quetzalcóatl and Quetzalcóatl II. The country and foreign investors liked the story, and Mexico’s economy surged.

Until it stopped surging, of course. That’s when a different story took over.

The point, as Akerlof and Shiller put it, is this:

Great leaders are first and foremost creators of stories…

Indeed, the power of stories is such that

We might model the spread of a story in terms of an epidemic. Stories are like viruses. Their spread by word of mouth involves a sort of contagion.

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Inspiration in a baton, a helmet, a sword …


In January I recommended to you a talk at Google’s Zeitgeist Conference that I had attended. It was by Itay Talgam, an Israeli conductor who asks us to see in the styles of the great conductors (Karajan, Kleiber, Muti, Bernstein…) the dos and don’ts of leadership, the ways to elicit or inhibit the creativity and collaboration of individuals in a group.

Talgam can make us see in a conductor’s manner of holding a baton our own experience as, or with, leaders.

He has now given essentially the same talk again at TED. (If I may observe: TED, Zeitgeist and Poptech, who are rivals, are essentially the same conference these days. As soon as a speaker does well in one, the other two pick him up too.)

So why would I recommend Talgam … again? Because his talk is so incredibly good! So watch all 20 minutes of it, below.

But I’d also like to make another point, one that might seem oblique. One thing I like about Talgam’s approach is that he draws from one area of life (orchestra music) and role (conductor) to inform another area of life (business) and role (boss).

In my very humble way, I try to do the same thing. When I think about writing, I like to think about painting–the way Rembrandt uses color so sparingly and thus effectively, for instance. I see in the highlights of a helmet the touches of good storytelling.

And in my forthcoming book, I take the story of Hannibal, Fabius and Scipio, whose role was commander and whose context was war–the sword, if you will–and I extend it to sex, science, business, sports, exploration, art, politics and intellect–and the ways we succeed and fail in them.

Sometimes, when I give my “elevator pitch” (ie, the book idea compressed into a sentence or two) I get blank stares. I imagine that Talgam does, too. But then I watch Talgam’s talk, and I leaf through my manuscript, and I realize that this … works!

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The conductor guru

I attended Google’s Zeitgeist conference again last fall, which is my second favorite conference after TED. And there was one session that blew me, and all of us in the audience, away as no other did.

Al Gore later said on stage: “I learned more about leadership in that half hour than in my entire career”.

Michael Pollan and I were raving about it, and I pointed out that the speaker did not even mention the word leadership the entire time. “It would have ruined it,” said Michael.

Who was that speaker? An Israeli conductor named Itay Talgam.

Notice that he encountered some audiovisual difficulties early on in the presentation. It did not matter. He never told us, he just showed us. Watch:

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