What’s Your Story?

I am working this week in Kosovo, facilitating a leadership development workshop. The recent history in this part of the world — including a bloody war for independence — is very challenging. Kosovo has all the problems of a new country, even though the culture is centuries old. In short, although the Kosovar culture is ancient and closely associated with nearby Albania, the land was part of Serbia until the most recent war, which reinstated Kosovo as its own country, at least for most of the world.

My visit here has been fascinating. I asked the driver from the hotel if he was originally from Pristina (the city in which we are working), and he talked for 20 minutes about the war and the impact of history with the Serbs. A breakfast with two local Rotary members I met online before traveling went the same way.

Fierce national pride, an embedded hatred for Serbia, a need to see the Serbs punished further and an almost indelible victim mentality are constant. In fact, it seems that all conversations lead there with people over about 45 or so.

But my conversations with those younger have been quite different. A waiter in the restaurant is clear that he grew up on those stories but is not teaching them to his daughters. “We had a war; now we are figuring things out — but that is done and now we just need to build a country.” At a meeting, I met younger Rotarians, mostly young women, who are budding Web entrepreneurs. Their story is even more different. “This is an exciting time. The rebuilding has created opportunities for us to take our place in the world community. We have infrastructure and connectivity, and we can take our fate in our own hands.”

All of these people are in the same place at the same time. Their views are different based on age and experience. (There is, of course, an entirely different story told by the small and waning Serb community.)

I wrote here in February 2007 on the power of story (“That’s My Story and I Am Sticking to It, Parts 1 and 2”). Here is an example of just how powerful stories can be and the cost of holding onto an old story too tightly. While it is important to remember the past and to learn from those lessons, it is not the older generation that will drive the economic and social growth needed to build a nation here. It will be those who are focused on what is possible now — equally proud of their culture, but focused on the future.

So what does this have to do with leading a business in Arkansas? If you could, like Shakespeare’s Henry V, walk anonymously in the hallways and meeting rooms of your business, what stories would you hear? Are they focused on historical challenges or on where the company is headed? Are they stories about what the organization can create or on limitations and problems from historical habits or even failures?

A leader must recognize limitations and challenges. To pretend that there are none is to invite disaster. But to dwell on them, rather than what you want to do about them, is to give them power to stifle creativity and new possibilities. So by all means, focus on solutions to current challenges — but in service to a new story about what you want your organization to become.

Years ago, I was privileged to have dinner with the man who was responsible for privatizing the banking system in Poland. I asked him about what he saw as the biggest challenges to establishing a free market banking system. He thought for a moment and finally said, “I know why Moses wandered in the desert for 40 years. He was not lost. He needed a generation of slaves to die. He could not found a nation with people who were accustomed to slavery. He needed a new generation accustomed to self-reliance to launch a new country.”

What are the stories that are told in the hallways, offices, break rooms and cafeterias at your business? Who is telling them? More important, perhaps, who is listening and what are they learning?

Originally published in Arkansas Business, Barry Goldberg On Leadership, October 13, 2014.