As a modern shaman, the visionary business
leader taps into the human yearning
to be part of a worthy cause.
on the history of Havana harbor was important: We had
shown up to do something that was bigger than the swirl of
temporary political bargaining between our countries, and
we had bet the farm on the journey.
When truth to the mission conflicts with truth to the
audience, truth to the mission should win out. The leader
who knows his listeners is able to gain their trust and spend
that currency wisely in pursuit of the mission. But this
doesn’t mean telling people exactly what they want to hear.
That’s pandering and, as Hollywood has learned, a formula
for a mediocre story. Indeed, sometimes you need to do
just the opposite. At our dinner party, Colin Callender,
president of HBO Films, noted that several of HBO’s most
acclaimed productions are ones that audience pretesting
marked as losers.
Even in today’s cynical, self-centered age, people are desperate to believe in something bigger than themselves. The
storyteller plays a vital role by providing them with a mission
they can believe in and devote themselves to. As a modern
shaman, the visionary business leader taps into the human
yearning to be part of a worthy cause. A leader who wants to
use the power of storytelling must remember this and begin
with a cause that deserves devotion.
One of today’s most creative business leaders is Muhammad Yunus, founder of Bangladesh’s Grameen Bank and pioneer of the microcredit movement, which advocates providing small loans to the poor. When he addresses would-be
partners to solicit support for microcredit, he tells some version of this story:
“It was a village woman named Sufiya Begum who taught
me the true nature of poverty in Bangladesh. Like many
village women, Sufiya lived with her husband and small children in a crumbling mud hut with a leaky thatched roof. To
provide food for her family, Sufiya worked all day in her
muddy yard making bamboo stools. Yet somehow her hard
work was unable to lift her family out of poverty. Why?”
(Of course, “Why?” is a rhetorical question. But posing it to
the listeners engages their curiosity and makes them eager
to hear the answer, which they trust Yunus to supply.)
“Like many others in the village, Sufiya relied on the local moneylender to provide the cash she needed to buy the
bamboo for her stools. But the moneylender would give
her this money only on the condition that he would have
the exclusive right to buy all she produced at a price he
would decide. What’s more, the interest rate he charged was
incredibly high, ranging from 10% per week to as much as
10% per day.
“Sufiya was not alone. I made a list of the victims of this
moneylending business in the village of Jobra. When I was
done, I had the names of 42 victims who had borrowed a
total of 856 taka – the equivalent of less than $27 at the time.
What a lesson this was for me, an economics professor!
“I offered $27 from my own pocket to get these victims
out of the moneylenders’ clutches. The excitement that was
created among the people by this small action got me further involved. If I could make so many people so happy with
such a tiny amount of money, why not do more?
“That has been my mission ever since.”
When Yunus tells this story of the origins of microcredit,
his listeners – including bankers, CEOs, and high government
officials – are moved. They are riding the emotional arc of
Yunus’s tale, which culminated in 2006 with the awarding
of the Nobel Peace Prize jointly to Yunus and Grameen
Bank. When he concludes his story by asking his listeners
to help bring affordable credit to every poor person in the
world, he almost always receives a standing ovation – along
with a flood of pledges.
The Unchanging Heart of Storytelling
Story forms have evolved continually since the days of the
shaman. Literary genres from epic poetry to drama to the
novel use stories as political or social calls to action. Technological breakthroughs – movable type, movies, radio, television, the internet – have provided new ways of recording,
presenting, and disseminating stories. But it isn’t special effects or the 0’s and 1’s of the digital revolution that matter
most – it’s the oohs and aahs that the storyteller evokes from
an audience. State-of-the-art technology is a great tool for
capturing and transmitting words, images, and ideas, but the
power of storytelling resides most fundamentally in “
At the end of the day, words and ideas presented in a
way that engages listeners’ emotions are what carry stories.
It is this oral tradition that lies at the center of our ability
to motivate, sell, inspire, engage, and lead.