I don’t know anyone who doesn’t like a good story and I have always been captivated by the power of a good storyteller. However, stories are more than merely entertaining diversions. My wife and I recently moved into a new home and as we unpacked boxes and removed the contents, I experienced so many images and emotions from the stories of raising children and earlier times in our marriage and military career.
Clearly, stories are central to our lives and if you think about it, we are really a continuous set of stories, defined and connected by relationships and experiences. Stories help create meaning and purpose for us, which is clearly one of the most important of human needs. Stories also help to shape our legacy. At the end of day (figuratively speaking), we may have created many things and accomplished noteworthy tasks, but the stories of our lives are what continue to impact people and organizations. As I unpacked and unwrapped those memories, it occurred to me that a leader without stories (or an organization, for that matter) is like an empty box; it has a purpose, but it is unfulfilled.
For leaders, stories have three important purposes, to teach, to touch and to transform. To illustrate those points, I’ll use a story told to me early in my Navy career. The story begins in 1957, with a young Yeoman Seaman on evening security rounds at the Makalapa Crater in Hawaii. Pretty mundane stuff, checking for locked doors and shut windows. The kind of work designed for the most inexperienced sailor, or to merely occupy time. In the middle of his rounds, this sailor noticed an older gentleman in shorts and a t-shirt approach from the officer housing area at the top of the crater. The young sailor was experienced enough to realize that the person was probably an officer and dutifully saluted and greeted him. The man didn’t introduce himself, but asked the sailor what he was doing. After explaining his duties, the man asked if he could join the sailor on his rounds.
As they walked, the man asked the sailor about his job, his background, and his future plans for the Navy, pretty personal questions for a complete stranger. The man was completely surprised to discover that this 17-year old was married and had already decided to make a career of the Navy. In 1957, most sailors were neither married, nor planned on making the military a career. As they continued their patrol and it grew dark, the man held the sailor’s flashlight and after a while took the clipboard himself and marked off the buildings while the sailor held the light. The sailor was struck by how personable and engaged the man was with a junior sailor doing a routine task.
As they returned to the headquarters building, the officer on watch raced outside to meet them, saluted smartly and announced, “Good evening, Admiral Stump!” Admiral Felix Stump, Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet had been the sailor’s partner on the security patrol that night. But the story doesn’t end there. The next day, as the young sailor walked down the street, a black sedan with a 4-Star Flag flying from front bumper passed by. The sailor immediately sensed something was wrong (the car slowed, stopped, and began to back up like it was following him). The sailor thought to himself, “I know I saluted the car, what did I do wrong? Is it my uniform? I must be in trouble…” An officer jumped out of the sedan and opened the rear door to reveal a Four Star Admiral who called out, “Hello there, young man! I enjoyed our conversation the other night.” One of the most important and powerful leaders in the military took time to reconnect with a 17-year old Yeoman from Texas.
As I reflect again on this story, I see vivid images of duty and responsibility, but I also feel the tremendous power of leadership presence, caring, and humility. Most important, this story convicted me to really see those around me differently. Fortunately, this story was just one of many lessons I learned from that young sailor whose career of Navy service, as a senior officer and civilian executive, spanned more than 55 years. Admiral Stump’s legacy survives, from my mentor, to me, and now to others. How have you unpacked your box of leadership stories?