GREAT LEADERS TELL STORIES

… and so do great speakers.

I am seriously sick of PowerPoint no matter how many pretty pictures are included, and I am also dismayed at the way it is overused by many managers in the invalid belief that it is the best way to deliver a strong message and to manage behaviour.

Author: Gareth Saunders; CC BY-SA 2.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

Author: Gareth Saunders; CC BY-SA 2.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons


I recently attended an all-hands meeting at a company where the board had asked me to accept an executive coaching assignment for their recently appointed CEO, so it was a great opportunity to see him in action. The company is doing well and he had a lot of good news and successes to share with his people. There was a serious air of excitement and expectation amongst the attendees, and a roar went up when the CEO came on stage amongst considerable fanfare.

He began his presentation and, after just a few words of thanks to his troops, he then launched into a 40 minute presentation with so many PowerPoints, and so many bullet points on each one, that after about 10 minutes of increasing frustration and ennui, amongst his people as well as me, I felt like standing up and screaming at him to just turn off his PC and to talk to his people … to just tell them something interesting that had a good chance that they would actually remember.

Great leaders paint pictures by telling stories, not by showing people lists of bullet points.

It is lucky that Mark Antony did not have PowerPoint at the time he said “Friends, Romans, Countrymen lend me your ears” otherwise he may have said “You can all see on bullet point 7 on slide 17 that I am asking you to take part in an aural loaner programme”, or something similar.

We do tend to remember stories that are interesting, that are compelling, that tell us something that resonates with who we are and what we are doing. It is very rare that we remember a list of bullet points, even if they do have a field of pretty sunflowers as their background.

Here are 4 examples of what I mean by the power of story-telling, all from my time in Singapore, where I moved nearly 20 years ago, and that have stayed with me ever since.

By Formulax; CC BY-SA 2.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

By Formulax; CC BY-SA 2.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons


– How Singapore handled black market Viagra … When Viagra was first released by Pfizer, and before it was approved by the Singapore medical authorities, there quickly grew a thriving black market for these magic “uplifting” blue pills. To combat this there appeared in the Singapore Straits Times a front-page story about an unfortunate young man who had been admitted to hospital after ingesting one of these pills, and after suffering an erection lasting over 24 hours. His life-saving treatment had necessitated the siphoning of blood from his penis to be injected back into his overall blood supply. As a result, he had been rendered permanently impotent. While the story did not make a lot of sense, the Viagra black market in Singapore died overnight.

Author: Bgtp (own work); CC BY-SA 3.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

Author: Bgtp (own work); CC BY-SA 3.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons


– Singapore and the Charlatan Medical Wizards … Elderly and sick people are generally very susceptible to charlatan medical cures for any serious ailments. The newspapers in Singapore regularly ran stories of elderly people, mostly women living on their own, who had been tricked into spending their life savings on a miraculous cure obtained from some “wizard”, who had managed to convince them of his power through some sleight of hand. This was a much more effective way of warning the elderly to be wary of such trickery than would have been even 1000s of PowerPoint presentations in retirement homes and clubs for the elderly.

– This donkey not look so good … For a conference keynote address, I wanted to illustrate the challenges of working in a region that had so many diverse cultures, and particularly about the fact that even though English was spoken in so many Asian countries, it was really a case of Nations being divided by a common language. I told the story of how because of a delayed flight I had arrived late in Malaysia for a company donkey trek down a beach to a pleasant bay for a bar-b-que. When I arrived at the saddling area there was only one very old and very mangy donkey left available for me to use. When I tried to climb on to the donkey the Malaysian handler said to me “This donkey not look so good”. I shouted that I didn’t care about physical appearances and that all I cared about was getting up the beach to the meeting point where I was expected. After just a few perilous metres into some palms I dismounted and berated the man as it was obvious that the donkey was blind. He couldn’t believe my anger as he had specifically told me “This donkey not look so good” when I had first arrived. I have been regularly reminded of this story over the last 20 years, most recently just a few months ago. I doubt whether any of these old colleagues of mine remember any of my PowerPoint presentations.

Author: Raul654 (own work); CC BY-SA 3.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

Author: Raul654 (own work); CC BY-SA 3.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons


– Two roosters for a single hen … After I had been in Singapore for about 6 months I was asked to do a TV interview about the hectic life of an executive with the responsibility of running such a geographically large and diverse region. One of the questions I was asked was about how my wife handled my regular absences.I said that my wife was very independent, had many interests, and being in a somewhat silly mood, I added that she had also just told me that she had taken up a new hobby which was the keeping of chickens, and that she had therefore bought 2 roosters and one hen. When I had asked her whether this didn’t create a situation where the 2 roosters would spend all their time fighting over the one hen, she replied that it was not a problem if one of the roosters travelled a lot. About 2 years later at a company event, a young Indian colleague sidled hesitantly up to my wife to shyly tell her that they had something in common as he also kept chickens. My wife, who had not seen the TV programme had no idea what he was talking about. I believe that this may be one of the few things he clearly remembers about me from my time in Singapore.

By Herrick; CC BY-SA 2.5 license; via Wikimedia Commons

By Herrick; CC BY-SA 2.5 license; via Wikimedia Commons


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THE LESSONS THAT MANAGERS CAN LEARN FROM SINGAPORE

I have been a big fan of Singapore, and in particular of its founder Dr. Lee Kwan Yew, since I first visited the island in 1977. I had the privilege of living and working there for over 6 years, before being transferred to Europe, and after an absence of more than 10 years, I recently revisited this vibrant, exciting city state for a week for a family reunion, and also for some of the best food in the world.

Author: Jxcacsi; via Wikimedia Commons

Author: Jxcacsi; via Wikimedia Commons


I loved the energy and the sense of purpose, and I also realised that there are many things that people in management positions can learn from Singapore and from Dr. Lee.

Author: R. D. Ward; via Wikimedia Commons

Author: R. D. Ward; via Wikimedia Commons


Build a vision … I am not talking about the importance of a “vision statement”, which most companies have proudly posted on their web sites, and which usually only state what companies tend to believe their markets want to see (see “The 3 great business lies” posted August 2, 2010), but a true roadmap of where to go, and of what has to be done to get there. When Singapore was expelled from the Malaysian Federation in 1965, and became an independent republic, it was a tiny, impoverished island port with a population of under 2 million. In the following 50 years it built its population to a well-educated 5.5 million, built a world class reputation for transparency and integrity, and become one of the wealthiest nations in the world on a per capita basis. Just like Dr. Lee, as a business leader you need to have a clear plan of what it is you wish to achieve, how you plan to do this, and how you will enlist the wholehearted support and commitment of your people, making sure to take them with you on the journey.

Look after your people … After independence in 1965 a major emphasis was placed on building programmes to overcome serious housing shortages, coupled with financial incentives that enabled citizens to easily purchase their government provided housing, resulting in one of the highest home ownership numbers in the world, and propelling many ordinary people into high asset wealth. My PA in Singapore sold the family home inherited from her parents for over S$6 million, and moved to Australia for a life of comfort in her retirement. In the almost 50 years since its independence Singapore’s economy has grown by an average of 9% annually, improving the lot of its people from an economic, education, healthcare and all quality of life viewpoints, and continues to do so each year. It has now attained a life expectancy that has reached 4th position in the world for males and 2nd position for females. In business, achieving results is critical, but you must look after your people along the way. Rewards and success must be shared throughout the entire team, and not just a few individuals.

Build a solid working environment … Dr. Lee was once questioned about his view of what he considered to be the most important inventions of the 20th Century. He answered that for Singapore, a country with a daily temperature of 34C with 100% humidity, it had been “air conditioning”, as it finally enabled Singapore workers to compete with the west. Dr. Lee established English as the primary language of Singapore, reasoning that if Singapore was to take its place on the world business stage, it needed to be able to speak the business language. It now has 4 official languages being English, Mandarin, Malay and Tamil, but English remains the language of education, business and government. As a manager you must ensure that you build the conditions, and provide the resources that are needed to enable your team to achieve its goals and to be successful.

Author: Paul Robinson; CC BY-SA 3.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

Author: Paul Robinson; CC BY-SA 3.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons


Build Talent … After independence, quality education for all was established immediately, and the government also began an accelerated programme of overseas assignments and learning for its best and brightest, ensuring that capable people were exposed to the latest business, scientific and technological thought and innovation which could be re-imported back into Singapore to help accelerate the development of the island state. In too many companies, managers limit training and development for their people based on the fact that if you spend time and money to educate them they may then leave. A significantly worse alternative is that you do not educate them, and they stay. Those managers who feel that education is expensive should consider the cost of ignorance.

Bring in missing skills … From day one, Singapore welcomed skilled, knowledgeable expatriates and mixed them into the local government and business communities to not only use their skills and experience, but also to help “infect” the locals. During my time in Singapore, I spent 2 years as a board member of IDA (Infocomm Development Authority), which had responsibility for helping to establish and develop Singapore’s competitive positioning in Telecoms and Technology. It was an eclectic blend of people from Public and private sector, both Singaporean and Foreign, and unlike some other Government boards that I have served on, was actually listened to, with its recommendations implemented at private sector speeds. In business you need to first look at developing the needed skills and capabilities in your own people, but there are times when you need to go outside for missing skills. It is a sign of strength for managers to know when they need to ask for help.

Author: Zeng Peng (own work); via Wikimedia Commons

Author: Zeng Peng (own work); via Wikimedia Commons


Use story telling … Some foreigners saw Singapore as a repressive and authoritarian environment, driven mainly by the amount of press, mosly in the US, that was accorded to the banning of chewing gum, and the high fines for littering, even for something as small as a cigarette butt, both being initiatives that I fully endorsed. However, I found few restrictions to my quality of life when I lived in a clean, green, beautifully maintained, low crime environment. The reality is that populace behaviour was controlled less by edict and more by fable and storytelling. For example, there was a thriving black market in Viagra in Singapore before the Food and Drug Authority had had a chance to validate its use. One day a story appeared in the Straits Times daily newspaper describing the plight of a man who had used a questionably acquired form of Viagra and as a result had been rendered impotent. The Viagra black market died overnight. Great business leaders can benefit from telling compelling stories and doing so frequently. Stories have a significant impact on our lives. Our memory consists of lots of stories. When we talk about things we remember they are usually in the form of a story. We primarily communicate through stories.

As Lee Kwan Yew said “Mine is a very matter-of-fact approach to the problem. If you can select a population and they’re educated and they’re properly brought up, then you don’t have to use too much of the stick because they would already have been trained.”