One December afternoon about ten years ago, I set out to buy a festive shirt for the company holiday party. When I returned to the office with said shirt in tow, a co-worker asked me what was in the bag. “You’ll see tonight,” I told her, and then promptly sequestered the bag to my office.
My shirt and I arrived at the party early to greet staff as they came in. I wasn’t there for more than five minutes when in walked a colleague wearing the exact same shirt. We both commented on the strange coincidence and then complimented each other on our respective good taste in clothing. Three minutes later, another colleague walked in wearing the same shirt. “This is incredible!” I remarked, “Honestly, what are the chances?!” Apparently pretty good, because a couple of minutes later another guy walked in with the same shirt on.
With the entrance of each colleague donning the same shirt, my astonishment grew in fervor and pitch. Here was a situation that was starting to feel biblical in its degree of miracle. After screaming in disbelief as the tenth guy appeared in the same shirt, my friend Hugh decided I had had enough humiliation. “Bill,” he confided, “It’s a joke.” “What do you mean?” I asked. “We peeked in your shopping bag and then went back to the store and bought out the rack.” I was touched; embarrassed, but touched.
What struck me about this situation—beyond the fact that I am clearly the most gullible person on the planet—was how great it felt to believe that something extraordinary was happening. It wasn’t Lourdes or Fatima mind you, but still, I felt part of some remarkable phenomena that others were a part of, and that felt pretty cool…even if it was a joke, and that joke was on me.
I fell back on this memory the other day while talking with a group of executives about how we all, as humans, want to believe in something bigger than ourselves, and how, as leaders, they need to foster a culture of believing among their workforce. I shared with them an idea espoused by Narayana Murthy, the founder and Chairman Emeritus of Infosys Technologies, that a leader is a “dealer in faith.” I love that notion and cannot underscore enough its importance in the corporate world. You see, in every great undertaking there are hundreds of practical steps that must take place; but first, there is a leap of faith. A key role of a leader is to compel others to make that leap, helping them marry the logic of where you’re going with the magic of why you want to go there in the first place.
Storytelling has always been a powerful way for leaders to get others to believe in something and, as a result, take that first leap of faith toward realizing a shared vision. Well-crafted stories, well told can build faith because they build meaningful connections between people and ideas; anyone who’s listened to a good sermon knows this. Leaders would do well to remember this, striving to define the beliefs, the faith that everyone in the company can share and create moments and mechanisms that allow them to celebrate that faith together. Building faith is a heavy responsibility, to be sure; but when you build it, people will commit, they will follow and they will work with you to reach your goals. And that’s no joke.
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