Stories are the best tool in a Leaders toolkit.
Picture this… I’m maybe 13 or 14 years old, I spend the summer at The John Wooden Basketball Camp. The legendary John Wooden. On the very first morning of the first day, there’s probably 500 kids like me all sitting on the gym floor.
Out comes John Wooden. He slowly walks to the front of all of us, sits down in a chair. He welcomes us and says the first thing we’re going to do is learn how to put our socks on properly. Imagine our reaction. We’re all thinking, “Are you kidding?” He pauses, as I’m sure he’s done many times before, having anticipated the skepticism, and says “I have to tell you about a kid who came to play for me at UCLA years ago.” He tells the story of an 18 year old freshman from from San Diego, who was the number one recruit in the country. He talked about this “kid” being unorganized, sloppy, and undisciplined. But he came to UCLA as the number one High School prospect in the country. He would roll out of his dorm late, show up to practice late, throw on his practice uniform, throw his shoes and socks on, and so on. On the very first game of his collegiate career, he couldn’t play because he had blisters all over his feet. And the blisters were the result of him not putting his socks on properly.
Then he paused and he said, “Does anyone know who that was? That was Bill Walton and he told us that he had to teach him how to put on his socks properly so he wouldn’t get blisters again. He ended with, “It’s about rituals and disciplines.”
And I so vividly remember my own shift from “are you kidding me” to falling into a trance-like state, so attuned to what he had to offer.
After his story, every single one of us, without any exception, was ALL IN. Not just with the socks, but with him. And he walked us through a slow motion tutorial of how to align the seem at the top of the sock with our toes, unfolding the sock and you go, and so on. There we were, 500 of us, in unison, practicing this new ritual, something we were not expecting when we showed up. And here’s the thing, I still go through that same ritual to this day, 30+ year later, my socks – always lined up perfectly. And it’s just socks, no big deal.
But its bigger than just the socks. I think about how we’ve all been conditioned to assert ourselves, our positions, our directions, onto others. We preach, direct, or worse, we use fear and intimidation. And it doesn’t work. Best case scenario, people mindlessly, and reluctantly follow, but worse, and more often, we feel coerced into doing something, and eventually, push back and repel. Getting people to do things; whether it’s employees, co-workers,prospects, customers – our kids… it often feels like an uphill battle, but it doesn’t need to be.
We all know how legendary John Wooden was, and I experienced first hand why people followed him. I can testify, and I know thousands of others would too, that he communicated differently. It was as if he communicated from the inside-out. He wouldn’t just tell people what to do. He would always share why they needed to do that. And the way he shared that “why” was through his own very real, and personal stories. I still remember that story about Bill Walton and it sticks with me to this day.
I also think about the alternative. If he were to tell us/forced us to go through the sock ritual without taking the time to share why. It would have been so much different. And yet, its so easy to just tell people what “they need to do.”
Take a moment to pause and instead of telling people what to do, think about why you’re asking that person to do something. If you have something to draw from, it’s probably a valuable “ask.” And if you don’t have anything to draw from, maybe you shouldn’t ask, and think about it some more.
I was reminded that there is no better tool in a leader’s toolkit, than our stories.