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Let Me Tell You A Story
Part VI

As I’ve said, Stories served me well. Here’s a story of an international student who was awarded a Rotary Scholarship and chose to attend the University of Arkansas in 1997, my first year as UA’s chancellor.

Her flight was very late in arriving at Drake Field in Fayetteville, Arkansas. Her luggage didn’t arrive until the next day. Because transportation wasn’t available, she wanted to spend the night at the airport, but it needed to close. So, a police officer took her to her residence hall. Nothing was going as planned. She was quite distraught, but remembered she needed to let her parents know she arrived safely. She picked up the phone in her room and dialed 001, which she thought would connect her to an international telephone operator. However, when she dialed the first zero, the university telephone operator asked if she could help. The student hung up the phone, waited a few minutes, tried again, and got the same result.

While sitting on her bed, sobbing, the phone rang. It was the telephone operator, who introduced herself and asked if the student was okay. The student poured out her story to the operator, including that she needed to secure a job because her Rotary Scholarship covered only a portion of the cost of her attendance. All the money she had for the year had been sewn into the dress she wore when she traveled to Arkansas.

The telephone operator told the student where to go in the Student Union to find a listing of job openings. After reviewing the list, the student applied for and secured a job as a telephone operator. She said she wanted to do for others what that operator did for her.

A few months into fall semester, the student was invited to meet with my cabinet. After sharing the story of her arrival, I asked what led to her coming to the University of Arkansas. She said she read a college guidebook, which arranged universities alphabetically by states. Nothing caught her attention about Alabama, but she thought Alaska was too cold and Arizona was too hot. However, when she saw Bill Clinton, the President of the United States, was from Arkansas, she concluded it must be a good place, so she applied and was admitted.

Next, I asked if she could change one thing about the University of Arkansas, what it would be. No one anticipated her response: “I would have all students live in my country for a year. Then, they would understand how fortunate they are to live in America and they would spend more time studying and less time partying.” She reminded us that millions of students dream of being able to attend college in America. She said she didn’t understand why so many students didn’t recognize how fortunate they were to be Americans.

The student majored in accounting, studied abroad in Spain for a year and met her husband-to-be, graduated with a perfect academic record, joined an international public accounting firm following graduation, and currently holds a management position with a high-tech company. Her story helped me raise private funds for academic scholarships. It also helped me remain focused on measuring success one student at a time.

Not only are stories effective when speaking, but also when writing. Several leadership authors structure their books around stories. Patrick Lencioni uses fables to deliver messages in his books, including The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. James C. Hunter’s The Servant shares the story of a businessman, John Daily, who attends a leadership retreat at a Benedictine monastery, hoping to get his life back on track; the monk who leads the retreat is a well-known business leader and teaches John numerous leadership lessons. Eliyahu M. Goldratt’s The Goal presents valuable insights and guidance for effective leadership by employing a Socratic approach, using a story of Alex Rogo, a plant manager, who turns around a failing manufacturing company through the guidance of a person named Jonah.

Now, let’s focus on a person’s story, rather than stories a person tells. Everyone has a story. Underlying Bill George’s Discover Your True North is his belief that leaders’ life stories define their leadership; each chapter of his book includes summaries of life stories of leaders he interviews.

Garry Wills, in Certain Trumpets, addresses the nature of leadership by addressing sixteen types of leaders (electoral, radical, reform, diplomatic, military, charismatic, business, traditional, constitutional, intellectual, church, sports, artistic, rhetorical, opportunistic, and saintly). He shares stories of two individuals for each type, one of whom is presented as a leader and the other as an antitype.

The framework of leadership in Howard Gardner’s Leading Minds is based on the stories of a diverse set of leaders.            Gardner notes, “It is important that a leader be a good storyteller but equally crucial that the leader embody that story in his or her life.” [i] He draws on stories of eleven individuals, some direct leaders and others indirect leaders, to build a case for leadership.

Just as communication is a two-way street, so are stories. While stories are a powerful tool for leaders to use in communicating with followers, hearing stories from followers is an equally powerful way for leaders to get to know their followers. As a leader, you should know each follower’s story. Likewise, they should know yours.

ArchCity Defenders’ Blake Strode advised leadership students, “Give people the opportunity to tell their stories directly.” Listen to them! Learn from them!


Next: Thank You, Woody Allen!


[i] Howard Gardner, Leading Minds: An Anatomy of Leadership, Basic Books, New York, NY, 2011, p. xiii.