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If you’ve read Why It Matters: Reflections on Practical Leadership, then you know that I’m a storyteller. This won’t be surprising to anyone who has been around me for even a short time. I used stories in teaching, in leading, in consulting, and in parenting. My children still remember stories I told around the dinner table. So does my sister. I’ve done it for as long as I can remember.

While leading the National Science Foundation’s Engineering Directorate, serving as Georgia Tech’s engineering dean, and serving as the University of Arkansas’ chancellor, I relied on stories to persuade people to become aligned with our mission and to pursue our goals and objectives. To effect change in an organization, I can’t think of a better tool than storytelling. As Carville and Begalla point out, “Facts tell, but stories sell.”[i]

For me, storytelling comes naturally. I realize it doesn’t come naturally for everyone. But it’s important to recognize that you aren’t limited to telling your stories. You can also use stories you’ve heard from others. In doing so, don’t mislead people by letting them think they are your stories. Perhaps examples will help.

While in Paris, France, to give a talk for IBM, the speaker who preceded me on the program told a story that resonated with me. At the time, I was serving as Georgia Tech’s engineering dean. Because we were the nation’s largest engineering program, when measured by the number of degrees awarded, it would be easy for a faculty member to lose sight of the importance of each individual student. Realizing I could use the story I’d heard in Paris to support my message, I told it often when I spoke to faculty groups. However, I personalized it.

Perhaps you’ve heard the story. My version goes like this: “My family loves to vacation on Hilton Head Island in South Carolina. I recall early one morning, just as the sun was rising, I was walking on the beach with our Irish setter, Red Lady. She was having a great time, chasing sand crabs. In the distance I saw someone dancing at the edge of the water. As we drew closer, I saw he wasn’t dancing, he was picking up something from the beach and throwing it into the ocean. Then, I noticed he was picking up starfish swept ashore by a storm and throwing them back into the water. There must have been thousands of them. I asked the young man, ‘What are you doing?’ He replied, ‘I’m trying to get these back in the water before the sun kills them.’ I said, ‘There are too many. You can never throw all of them back. You won’t make a difference.’ He looked at me, as he threw another one into the ocean, and said, ‘I made a difference for that one.’” Then, looking at members of the faculty, I’d say, “We can make a difference with our students. We can do so by measuring our success one student at a time.”

To support the same theme, I often told the following story: “While hiking on a new trail, a student came upon a sign reading, ‘Pick up some pebbles and put them in your pocket. At the end of the day, you will be both glad and sad.’ She thought it was very odd, but why not? So, after picking up a few of the smaller pebbles and putting them in a pocket, she proceeded to complete the hike. Before going to bed, she removed the pebbles and placed them on a table. They had turned to gold. She was glad she had picked up the pebbles, but was sad, wishing she had picked up more and larger ones.” Then, I’d remind faculty groups that the pebbles are our students; as we teach and affirm them, they will turn into gold.

I can’t help but wonder how many times I failed to stop and pick up some pebbles, how many times an opportunity to do a little thing occurred, but I walked on by and missed the chance to impact someone’s life. To make the point that little things mean a lot, on pages 251-253 in Why It Matters, I share two stories. But I didn’t share this one.

One of the many things Mary Lib did to support me when I was UA’s chancellor was teaching an etiquette class to graduating women athletes. As a final examination, we hosted the women at the chancellor’s residence for dinner. Three tables were set up: Mary Lib was at one table, I was at another table, and Bev Lewis, the leader of women’s athletics, was at the third table. During dinner, I asked each student to share her favorite memory of her years at the university. Most students mentioned receiving All-American honors, competing in Hawaii, or something else related to athletics. However, a student from the former Soviet Union who was the setter on the volleyball team said something quite different. She said her favorite memory was when I spoke to her at Market Place, a nearby restaurant. I remembered it well. I was having lunch with campus visitors when I saw her enter the restaurant. I excused myself from the group, went over to her table, and asked how she was doing and how her classes were going. I thought nothing of it. However, it obviously had a huge impact on her. When I asked why my speaking to her was so impactful, she said, “Leaders in my country would never do something like that.”

While serving as President and CEO of Walmart International, Judith McKenna told the students in my leadership class, “What really matters to people are the tiny noticeable things that happen every day.” She said TNTs—tiny noticeable things—can be powerful!

Sic parvis magna (great things from little things come)! Not only do little things matter, but so do stories!

Next: Let Me Tell You a Story—Part II


[i] James Carville and Paul Begala, Buck Up, Suck Up … And Come Back When You Foul Up: 12 Winning Secrets from the War Room, Simon & Schuster, New York, NY, 2002, p. 108.