As we enter this festive season, in addition to wishing you and your family all the best for the holidays and the New Year, I wanted to share with you my new year’s resolutions, beginning with a quote from Albert Einstein that I love:
If at first an idea is not absurd, there is no hope for it.
Why is this so meaningful to me? Almost exactly ten years ago today, in December 2000, when I left my position as Program Director of Knowledge Management at the World Bank, I set out to convert the world to the power of storytelling. I did so because I saw in leadership storytelling a way to make the world a more humane and better place than the grim humorless workplaces that I saw all around me. At the time,
people told me that my goal was quixotic, even absurd.
During those ten years, many people around the world have come to embrace leadership storytelling. As a result of the efforts of myself and many others, it is now commonplace to find leadership storytelling discussed and promoted in even the most conservative business journals. Most leadership textbooks now have a section on storytelling. Business schools now often include segments on storytelling in their courses on leadership. Major corporations have taken it up as a central leadership theme. In broad terms, the intellectual battle to have storytelling accepted in the world of work has been won. What was once seen as absurd is now viewed as obvious.
Yet the grim humorless workplaces are still everywhere. That war has still to be fought.
Thus I have come to see that storytelling by itself is not enough. In organizations today, we find a set of attitudes, practices and values that cripple the human spirit and hamstring creativity and innovation. Fortunately, we now have robust evidence of something that we have instinctively known for a long time, namely, that these attitudes, practices and values are leading to failure even according to their own traditional criteria, such as the rate of return on assets, the life expectancy of a firm in the Fortune 500, the engagement of those doing the work or their capacity to create employment.
We also know that these attitudes, values and practices have infected our education system which no longer provides an education that fits our children for the future and our health system, which, quite apart from the recent health reform, is heading the country towards bankruptcy.
I believe that the time is therefore ripe to take on the broader challenge of reinventing those attitudes, practices and values so that our organizations become curators of the human spirit rather than its destroyer.
The next ten years: a new challenge
Having decided to take on the gargantuan challenge—once again, I am hearing that the goal is absurd—of inspiring the Fortune 500 (along with the health and education sectors) to reinvent themselves and run their affairs in a way that is radically different from what most of them are doing today, I will need to lead through a combination of clear thinking, courage and leadership storytelling.
I will tell stories that show why most of the firms in the Fortune 500 are much less productive than they were fifty years ago, not because managers have forgotten how to manage but rather because the economic context has shifted and management hasn’t. I will also tell stories that show how some organizations have discovered how to manage in a radically different way that leads simultaneously to high productivity, continuous innovation, deep job satisfaction and client delight.
More than an idea: a social movement
To succeed, I will need to tell authentically true stories that capture many people’s imagination and engage them to inspire others to keep doing more. The stories will need to grow and evolve as listeners, readers and followers become a central part of the journey and participate in it and co-create it.
I will join with other authors, leaders and activists, who share this vision and do whatever I can to encourage and support them in their work. We will all need to deploy new forms of storytelling, with different strands of the story being told across multiple platforms at the same time, creating a deeply immersive experience and generating what Justine Musk has called: “world worthy of devotion”.
To create this world of life-enhancing practices, attitudes and values, we will need to convey meaning that reveals our deepest values, our very core, as human beings. We will need to inspire people to move forward, even on those miserable days when the cause seems hopeless, when the guardians of the status quo are doing their darnedest to prevent change, and everyone is discouraged and tempted to abandon the challenge.
We will need to create a world in which people can find sustenance and inspiration. Obviously, none of us can change the world alone. Ultimately, it’s about all of us inspiring others to take the future into their own hands and change the world themselves. We can give ideas and stimulation but ultimately it is others who will have to summon up the energy and the ingenuity to overcome the forces of soul-destroying stagnation and create a new world.
Eventually, this meaning will need to reach many people through multiple vehicles. It will begin with face-to-face conversations and then spread by books, articles, meetings, conferences, webinars, networks, communities, emails, websites, blogs, social media or whatever – each creating more communities and networks that link up to other communities and networks, and so create a social movement that is broad and deep.
The movement will need to be as much about listening as it will be about speaking: listening to the voices that emerge, the voices of their hopes, their deeper aspirations and their fears, giving everyone, including our seeming opponents or enemies, our respect. It’s about letting the ideas grow and evolve, all the time paying attention to life.
If you would like to join with me and help in any capacity--as participant, discussant, commentator, thinker, writer, editor, contributor, correspondent, activist, insurgent, speaker, leader, follower, muse, whatever-- to tackle this massive but worthwhile challenge, let me know.
I would love to hear from you!
POSTSCRIPT DECEMBER 25, 2010:
The object of the Group is:
• inspiring business, government & social sector organizations to reinvent themselves & create a work-world of life-enhancing practices & values
• launching a broad social movement that uses storytelling to capture people’s imagination that inspires organizations to become curators of the human spirit.
You can join by going to Google Groups at http://groups.google.com/group/revolutionizing-the-world-of-work.
Please join us there and help revolutionize the world of work!
 Deloitte’s Center for the Edge: The Shift Index; The Kauffman Foundation