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5 Invaluable Story Telling Rules From Aristotle (You Don’t Need to Be Steve Jobs)

Recent leadership literature (exhibit’s a & b) tells us that “telling a good story” is something all the best leaders do.

According to the Harvard Business Review a good yarn “informs, involves, and inspires” employees.

Good stories also attract customers and build brand identity. We need only look at Steve Jobs’ eagerly anticipated and meticulously studied presentations.

But where’s the proof? We can’t really measure the value of stories, can we?

Would Apple be less popular if Steve Jobs’ stories were a bit dryer? Would Apple eclipse Microsoft if Steve Jobs’ had even better stories tucked under this turtle neck?

Further, what is a good story? Some people might think the founding story of your small business is inspirational. Others might tune out after you pause for your first breath.

We don’t have a universal measuring stick that determines a story’s value.

But, we do have Aristotle’s Rhetoric. Written in the 4th century B.C.E Rhetoric had one simple aim: teach orators and statesman how to persuade people to do or to believe in something. After defining rhetoric, its worth, and its power Aristotle considered rhetorical style and admitted it was an illusive quality. You can’t teach style, nor can you lay out the principals of style without stepping on the toes of your argument.

However, Aristotle believed there were five rules all public speakers and story tellers had to follow in order to hold an audience captive.

They are as follows:

1. “[Employ] the proper use of connecting words and the arrangement of them in the natural sequence which some of them require”

Translation: Avoid run-on sentences and parenthetic remarks.

Long sentences and weird word order will muddy your story and weigh it down.

2. “[Call] things by their own special names and not by vague general ones.”

Translation: Don’t use vague words–use specific words. Your story will thank you.

This is obvious sounding, but leaders and storytellers forget it all the time. Consider Delaware GOP Senate candidate Christine O’Donnell line: “I’m not a witch…I’m you.”

3. “Avoid ambiguities; unless indeed, you definitely intend to be ambiguous, as those do who have nothing to say but are pretending to mean something.”

Translation: Ambiguity is bad for speeches. Unless of course you want to fog the debate.

Here we get a glimpse of the pragmatic Aristotle. He knew that rhetoric could be manipulated and that’s why it was something worth learning. Still, his primary point about avoiding ambiguity is crucial for leaders who want to tell stories. Keep it simple.

4. Observe Protagoras’ classification of nouns into male, female, and inanimate; for these distinctions also must be clearly given.”

Translation: Use acceptable grammar.

I’m not sure leaders would do well to use Protagoras’ noun classifications today, but Aristotle’s larger point is apt. Don’t be lazy–use good grammar so everyone can keep on the same page.

5. “Express plurality, fewness, and unity by the correct word ordering.”

Translation: You and your argument will look stupid if your grammar isn’t consistent.

Again, Aristotle is stressing correct, simple, orderly grammar. Storytellers need to be clear–they don’t have to use big words and long paragraphs.

Three of Aristotle’s five style rules deal with grammar. It shows that even Aristotle didn’t have a clear idea of how to make an argument or a story truly stylish, enthralling, and interesting.  Aristotle didn’t mention dress, mannerisms, strength of voice, physic, and charm.  What mattered for Aristotle was the clear presentation of facts.

Leaders who want to begin telling stories can take heart from Aristotle’s rules. You don’t need the flare of Steve Jobs’ in order to tell a good story. You just need ordered thoughts, a healthy understanding of grammar, and a clear presentation. Other considerations like charisma and personality may help a story teller–but they certainly aren’t prerequisite skills leaders, orators, storytellers, and statesmen need.

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Did Steve Jobs Overreact?

In the latest issue of Fortune, Adam Lashinsky details Steve Jobs’ hands-on managerial style as well as his meltdown after the rocky and buggy 2008 debut of Apple’s cloud based storage service MobileMe. After a number of horrible reviews of the service, Lashinsky claims that Jobs let the executives responsible for the debacle have it, and have it good. Jobs’ reportedly told the offending team that they “…should hate each other for having let each other down” and that their failures had “tarnishing Apple’s reputation.”

So is this tirade by Jobs an example of a leader who is overreacting? By ripping into the MobileMe team, did Jobs go too far and do damage to his ablity to lead effectively? As we will see, the answer to both questions is no.

On the surface, this blow-up would seem like just another CEO throwing a tantrum any six year old would be proud of, but in fact this incident is the perfect example of that even when frustrated Steve Jobs keeps his eyes on the collective. He supposedly fired the entire MobileMe production team, but it was done to teach others within the company that what failed wasn’t simply a product but the sense of the collective which has made for Apple’s success.

I am guessing that everytime there is a minor problem at Apple, Jobs doesn’t fire entire teams, but sometimes you have to make loud moves to keep everyone’s eyes on the collective prize. With this in mind it’s  important to highlight the fact that pointless overacting can be a major problem for leaders.

As I discuss in my book Keep Them on Your Side, there is a least one over-reactive leader in nearly every organization. They are the leaders who take every piece of information, every strand of data, and take action based on that information. These leaders seem to be unable to prioritize or filter the fundamentally important information they receive from the anecdotal, anomalous information that is pervasive in organizations.

You’ve seen or heard it before. Someone will come into the office and declare, “We’ve been getting a lot of complaints (read: two) about our new software upgrade.” The overreactive leader may take that information, call up the lead programmer on the project, and demand that a new version be created immediately. Overreacting is a strategy that leaders choose to assure that they won’t be perceived as “falling asleep at the wheel.”

What over-reactive leaders fail to realize is that with each shift, they are sapping the momentum they’ve built from past action. Think of it like rolling a ball bearing down an incline. If you let the ball bearing roll untouched, momentum builds. But what happens if after the first couple of seconds, you redirect the ball bearing with your finger? Then what happens when you redirect it another second later? Then another? The ball may come to a virtual stop or, worse, it will keep moving but in a jerky motion, never really building up any critical mass. This is a metaphor for how team members experience initiatives run by over-reactive leaders.

From all that we’ve read, it’s clear that Steve Jobs demands an almost mythical level of excellence and in cases like the MobileMe debacle, he can also use tough-talk, anger and outright dismissal as a motivational tool. But in no way does that make him an over-reactive leader. Steve Jobs has built the Apple brand around the idea that the company’s products are cutting edge, user-friendly and most importantly highly functional and reliable. That is the vision of the company and when the company and its workers fail to reach those heights it’s up to a leader like Steve Jobs to bring his people together to not only solve the problem but also make sure it doesn’t happen again. “Bringing people together” doesn’t always mean sitting in a circle around a roaring campfire and sharing your innermost feelings. Sometimes you have to drop an f-bomb or two to make those you lead remember the over-arching and communal reasons for previous successes.

As long as you don’t overdo it, strong and forceful reactions can work in your favor. But it’s crucial to remember that people who work on projects led by over-reactive leaders are likely to burn out or become frustrated by the frenetic action and stunted progress of the initiative. Too much time is spent asking—and answering—the question, “Where are we going next?” In this situation, it is difficult for the leader to make sure the work gets done and that things keep moving. Over time, people are more likely not to do work, fully expecting that priorities and objectives will change shortly. When behavior reaches this point, an initiative has lost, and is unlikely to regain, momentum. You can run around frantically saying the sky is falling once in a while, but if you do it every other day, you’ll kill momentum.

In the end there will be times when you will need to lose your temper and act decisively like Steve Jobs did in 2008. The key is you need to remember to pick your spots wisely. You must avoid casting and attributing blame causality. Your goal must be to make adjustments while keeping people on your side.

-Adam Lashinsky’s article “Inside Apple” is available in the latest issue of Fortune for iPad as well as from Amazon for your Kindle. It will also be in the May 23 print edition of Fortune.


photo: traveling.lunas
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Building a Better Boss

Can you build a better boss? According to the brilliant minds at Google, you can.  It’s odd because I personally  thought that Apple would beat Google to the punch on this one (i.e. iBoss) I am sure as we speak, the big brains/egos down at 1 Infinite Loop are being told by their perfect boss to come up with the perfect boss. But I digress.

The New York Times’ Adam Bryant recently reported on Google’s Project Oxygen. Bryant explains that starting in 2009 Google “began analyzing performance reviews, feedback surveys and nominations for top-manager awards.” From this information “…they correlated phrases, words, praise and complaints” to come up with their Eight Habits of Highly Effective Google Managers.

Since Google has attempted to reinvent the wheel (and succeeded) over the past few years, you might be expecting some ground breaking and life changing stuff to be on this management list.  Gems like “Take this green pill and you will become the world’s greatest leader” or “stop using Bing, it will kill you”. Sadly, this is not the case (I am not 100% sure about the Bing thing, but I am guessing you will be fine). Instead, the list is filled with common sense ideas such as:

1. Be a good coach

2. Empower your team and don’t micromanage

3. Express interests in team members success and personal well being

4. Don’t be a sissy: Be productive and results oriented

5. Be a good communicator and listen to your team

6. Help your employees with career development

7. Have a clear vision and strategy for the team

8. Have key technical skills so you can help advise the team

Nothing earth shattering here, but after reading this list I bet you can find a few that you (or your boss) fail to do on a daily basis. And therein lies the rub: leaders today are ignoring the obvious.

After decades of convoluted leadership training, bosses and the bossed are confused and lost. Did we really need a detailed statistical study to tell us that it’s a swell idea to “be a good communicator and listen to your team”? I guess we do, because we are so bogged down by leadership mantras and how-to-lead books (type leadership books into Amazon and you get 57,602 results) that we don’t know which way is up.

The fine people at Google spent untold amounts of time to  create a list that  basically is telling us, “don’t be a jerk, don’t be stupid, and get your head out of your backside”.  The sad part is that we needed them to do so.

What do you think? Did you need to be told how to lead? Or for that matter did you need to be called a sissy by a bunch of four-eyed geeks? (full disclosure, I am wearing thick  glasses and writing a blog so…)

Take a look at the list, read Adam Bryant’s outstanding article, make up your own mind and please tell us what you think. We want to listen and we worry about your well being.

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7 social media and leadership stories from the past 7 days

Here are seven stories from the past seven days about social media and leadership.


1. The Wisdom of Booker T. Washington

2. Grading Time Warner CEO Bewkes on Leadership

3. Time for Apple to speak up on future leadership

4. Don Banks from Sports Illustrated on the looming NFL strike

5. It is never too early to learn leadership

6. How 7-Eleven discovered the secret to success is service

7. Yes, Virginia, You Can Get Business with Social Media

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Tough Act To Follow: 3 Tips to Transferring Charismatic Power

The sociologist Max Weber realized long ago that one of the challenges of leadership is the transference of power.  Weber knew that this was especially the case when you are forced to replace a charismatic leader. How does a visionary, an inspirational leader, a person driven by a sense of calling and purpose transfer their charismatic energy to the leadership that follows?

More often than not, the issue of charismatic transference emerges in startup organizations. Organizations led by entrepreneurial, paradigm breaking, charismatic revolutionaries may reach the pinnacle of success but the problem then becomes: how does the company keep it going if the leader chooses to go fly fishing, become  a college professor or just decides the time has come to move on.

Having a charismatic leader seems like a great idea, especially during a start up period or during a time of crisis.  Having such a luminary, such a solitary star in the sky makes it easier to navigate through both the good and the bad.  But anything that shines so bright will inevitably burn out. Then you have a big problem to solve.

A current day example of the daunting task of charismatic transference is Steve Jobs. Steve Jobs is Apple and Apple is Steve Jobs.  That’s what we’ve been sold, and that’s what we choose to believe. This week Mr. Jobs announced that he will be taking another medical leave of absence, his third in the last six years. When the news first came out, shares in Apple fell 8% in overseas markets (due to the MLK holiday on Monday, US markets were closed).  Of course the stock rebounded later in week thanks to Apple’s amazing earnings announcement, which included at profit increase of 78% ($6 billion) and record revenue of $26.7 billion. It’s pretty clear that even if Jobs were not to return, Apple would continue being a giant in the tech world, but for how long?

Apple and Jobs offer a look at both the upside and the downside of having a charismatic leader. More importantly, they highlight the near impossibility of having to replace one. There is no question that without Steve Jobs at the helm, Apple would have never reached the heights it has. The company itself has created fundamental shifts in the tech industry, if not the world, time and time again. Then again Jobs’ charisma has had a lot to do with how many of us respond like moths to a flame when he rolls out of a new iPod or iPhone.

So without Jobs, can Apple survive? The answer is a resounding, but qualified, yes. Things will hum along just fine as long as the next wave of leaders at Apple focus on one thing and one thing one: Execution.  It’s clear that charisma has played a large role in their success far, but in reality it was Steve Jobs’ ability to get things done, to execute, that made Apple what it is today. His dedication, if not obsession, with high quality, forward thinking projects is legendary. His drive, his desire to succeed and his ability to get those around him to execute at levels that they never thought possible are what make Steve Jobs a titan of industry.  To say the least, Jobs’ overwhelming charisma has certainly helped, but it alone cannot explain his or Apple’s success.

Tim Cook and the rest of Apple’s future leaders need to focus on not trying to out-charisma a cult hero like Jobs. It’s not going to happen. If they can just find a way to continue Jobs’ record of execution, they just might have a chance. It’s not going to be easy, but I can guarantee it will never happen if they choose to focus on charisma over execution.

Bottom line, if you have a charismatic leader and you’re facing a transference of power keep the following in mind:

-In the short term build on the plan laid out by the charismatic leader

-During the transference period make sure that concrete steps of execution are built on the charismatic vision

-Move agendas forward built on the charismatic vision but get beyond it

Simply put, change little, reinforce the vision, make sure you know how to execute on the vision and most importantly, respect the vision for a while but don’t be afraid to move beyond it when the time is right. Charismatic leadership, even when it slightly fades, can be a base for successfully moving forward.

Photo: willamli