Great Leaders tell Values Embedded Stories


People perk up and listen when other people talk about values.

When leaders talk about resonant core values, the values that resonate with others in your community (like a chord played on a classical guitar), they make powerful connections with those who inhabit the community with them. Speaking from the position of values, leaders (and that’s not the same thing as appointed managers) transcend the boxes in which stereotypes and reputation put them. They begin to draw those listening to them out of their protective shells and inspire them to make significant contributions to potentially world changing projects.

Humans across all cultures have been telling values embedded stories since before the dawn of history. It’s in our DNA. Values embedded stories are the stories told around the campfires, the coffee shop and the board rooms that give people as sense of deep identity and belonging.

According to John King, co-author of Tribal Leadership, great leaders are masters at creating relationships with people by telling short value embedded stories that follows this six step pattern:

1) it is personal;
2) it highlights the contributions of others;
3) it delivers a resonant core value;
4) it triggers others to tell their own resonating values story;
5) it touches the heart;
6) it’s memorable.

Want to be a great leader? Try this, instead of gossiping around the coffee pot, tell a story about one of your values. As you learn to do it well, it will change your world.


How to support S4 in the context of S2/S3 culture

Lots of folks interested in Tribal Leadership wonder if it is possible to create a stable S4 subculture inside of S2/S3 tribe. Perhaps my leadership story can help support those who would try.

My conversion to the Tribal Leadership model came when a group of us began to partner around creating a high quality learning culture supported by curriculum reform and fueled by reflective assessment. This led to us creating an pilot initiative that perhaps b/c it was a BIG IDEA led to the evolution from S2 to S4 of a team of 6-8 core faculty (perhaps at that size it would be more properly called a clan).  We were transformed by working closely and collaboratively with one in an attempt to make our world a better place.

We went from being victims to being empowered in ~90 days. Using tribal leadership triads + Oil Changes helped connect our values with a noble cause. They were really key tools. In tight resources, these wonderfully talented and committed folks did a great job of making a silk purse from a sow’s ear and loved doing it (or, perhaps like childbirth, they sortof forgot about the times they hated doing it)…despite the fact that it was a lot of work to set up. They often commented on the sense of empowerment and meaning-addedness that working together on the noble cause and seeing tangible accomplishments related to the core values of the organization.

One of the threats to staying at S4 is that the empowerment of the new S4 clan leads to lots of friction (hopefully it is short-term) with the larger tribe.  In our case, the larger tribe was only small tribe sized (~80 faculty). In times of tight resources, S3 behaving managers in other parts of the organization and using the only language they know seemed to work hard to discredit and marginalize any group asking for additional assets to expand what it saw as successful work. It’s hard emotionally for an emerging S4 team, one that has rapidly risen to S4 from low S3/high S2, to bear up to the sniping of S2 colleagues following their S3 managers and to have their results downplayed at the Sr. mgt level.  This is natural and to make the transition, we need to recognize it as such.

In the early stages, when we knew things were really working, but when that was not apparent to others yet, it seemed that we were the only one’s who could see our halos, dadnabit!  I think it is important to recognize this as an expression of the dark side of S4 tribalism. It’s wonderful to move from the deadening and draining daily experience associated with “My Life Sucks” (S2) and “I’m Great and YOU are not” (S3) to the empowering experiences associated with life at “We are Great” (S4).  It’s euphoric almost.  But the shadow of S4 that we drag along behind We are Great is “…and they aren’t.”  While it may seem fine to say that in football, the reflective S4 tribe wants to ditch that shadow and move to the wholly affirming cultural state of Life is Great when engaged in the real business of life.

I would say that some of this friction could perhaps have been alleviated if, as a leader, I had been more aware of the need to spend time creating triadic partnerships up the chain, while simultaneously working to upgrade this faculty team. I spent a whole lot of time working on upgrading clan culture, teaching my own classes, etc. Naively, I thought that would be enough. I didn’t see that I had to be working to upgrade the tribal culture above my level.

I would say that it is true that dyadic S3 leadership is way more work than triadic S4, but in the early days working at upgrading S2s to S3s, getting S3s to be willing to work triadically, etc. seems to take a lot of energy, too. The success at the end is that S4 teams are power multipliers and some things get easier.

At this point in time, it seems that the scales have fallen off the new S4 eyes and people start asking the question: if our clan is great, but our tribe thinks we suck, shouldn’t we find a new tribe? So for a small group of unstable S4s in a predominantly S2/S3 culture, things seem to teeter between moving forward into more stable S4 or looking for a better tribe. In degrees, everyone in the clan sees the potential for and no one wants to fall hard back down into S2-hood.  At this critical stage, it seems to take a lot of passion, almost cheerleading, on the part of the leader to keep reminding folks that we are great, keep folks talking about the fact that we are great, and to keep folks focused on the noble cause rather than the intermediate setbacks, which take an emotional toll.

While I think the quickest way to help stabilize a nascent S4 team is to get some real affirmation from the top, sending the message “Yes, somebody else recognizes that y’all are great,” affirmation from an S2 leader just doesn’t cut it; talk about inauthenticity. It would also help if organizational resources were committed to expanding the program.  That would help create critical mass, but that won’t happen in the next budget cycle…and it will take staying S4 and getting even better results to meet the bar for real budgetary inclusion. For long term results, maybe the better way is to identify a couple of emerging leaders in the clan and put more energy into supporting their stability…. The Tribe is always a work in progress I suppose.

For those interested in the particulars of this project, there are a couple of general blog posts related to the it at

Values and Stories

Stan Slap, in a McKinsey Quarterly post, suggests that “simply looking at your values consciously often helps connect them to the specific moments—big or small—that made a difference to you then and can again now.”  He makes this suggestion in light of his overall argument that when leaders tell stories about their values they create a kind of gravity that draws people into an ongoing narrative intent on changing the world.

All stories communicate values.  Good stories communicate them in memorable ways.

Values are peculiar things.  They seem to exist as a class of objects (or beings perhaps) that share in common the ability to inspire human action. They seem to have a quality like that of a magnet in that they can draw people together or repel them.  They seem to exist outside of us, in that they can be apprehended as something abstract and separate from humans and yet they seem to really only exist when embodied in actions.  As such, values are things that seem to be hidden and thus must be discovered and revealed.  That’s a great thing, because humans delight in discovering things.

A good story teller helps people discover things, particularly values, by taking the hearer, in a somewhat disembodied state, on a journey.  In this state, unencumbered from the visceral noise of experience, the engaged hearer can focus on what’s important without being distracted by the need to be vigilantly attuned to all the visceral data that informs us of physical threats to survival.

Most people act on an inchoate sense of right many times before we take the time to discover what it is that inspires us to act in certain ways.  By clarifying our values, we give them more substance and greater capacity to organize and empower our actions.

The discovery process by which we clarify our values process is akin to archeology.  We scrape away the layers of accumulated common stuff of life and reveal, as we scrape, the our buried values. When digging for values, one must be careful to sift the stuff of life for the little things that when put together reveal something wonderful rather than aggressively knocking holes in the walls of one’s biography like a treasure hunter fixated on one particular object of value and in so doing destroys all that fails to fit his notion of value.

A treasure hunter manager might say, “I want my employees to work harder.  Hmm, let’s see, when was a time in my life when I worked hard and got a benefit.  That story will inspire my employees to work harder.” I label that storyteller a manager because he is merely attempting to manipulate people (including himself) as if they were objects.  It may be that this person does value hard work, but that value didn’t arise from authentic discovery, but rather from external motive.  The listener will quickly hear the story for what it is, a shallow attempt at manipulation rather than an authentic revelation.

Having unearthed the real values that have been nudging one down the various paths of life, the storyteller sits quietly before the fire and examines the naked value laying in her lap and reflects on the mishmash of images that had been clinging to, or perhaps holding together the various components of the now naked value.

The storyteller’s job shifts from archeologist to sculptor.  The value becomes the framework and the images associated with the story the clay that the storyteller begins to mold onto the value.  Once the images from memory are organized in a way that fleshes out the framing value, the story sculptor begins the process of smoothing it out.

Great stories undergo a great deal of refining. Most of that refining is done in telling the story again and again to an audience listening for the values communicated by the story.

Finally, when telling a story for the sake of communicating a value or set of values, a good way to gauge whether it successfully communicated what you wanted it to is to just go ahead and ask the audience what they heard and follow that with asking why they think what they heard is important.  One thing to note is that audience members hear things that either affirm or offend their values.  So listening for what they tell you they heard and comparing it to what you intended to say is a great way to identify the embedded values that seem to resonate, and in resonating the power to inspire.

Leadership v. Management

Leadership is the practice of empowering people to get the job done effectively and with a sense of pride in their accomplishment. As such, leadership is a people-focused activity.  If one hopes to be an effective leader, one of the first distinctions to make is the one that separates leadership from management.

Management, the act of organizing things, is a useful skill to possess. Management is necessary for most endeavors, since most productive activities require people to manipulate “stuff” in order to get the job done.   Most people also desire to have the opportunity to organize their environment, to express their creative unction in making their own world. Organizing the stuff of life into a system that supports and sustains one’s life as well as one’s sense of the rightness of the world is a powerful desire and quite possibly a requirement for human existence (based on the evidence of what the human species has been doing for the past 10-20,000 years).  Certainly organizing diet and exercise, use of time, and patterns of thought are essential to personal effectiveness.

Management becomes a problem, however, when one decides to organize people as if they are things.

Things don’t have a feelings, aspirations, will or a seemingly innate desire for meaning and purpose.  People do.  Every single person has a unique sense of how they want to their world to be organized.  That sense comes from a mental mashup of responses to the various organizational structures they have experienced throughout their lives as well as the personal trial and error experiences that have taught them what works and what doesn’t.

Sadly, whenever someone imposes their sense of organization on others, the act often seems to require one to see people as things.  They cease to be people with their own wills, and become objects existing to accomplish the will of the one. A thoughtful study of history suggests that such situations evoke at least a couple of negative responses, and mangers are frustrated by one form or another every day.

One natural response to being made an object of the imposition another’s will is resistance. This is often the first response a normally competent human being has in the face of being objectified.  It comes out as, “Don’t tell me what to do; I know what I’m doing.”  In the face of ongoing objectification, the resistance either intensifies to the point that the subjected person removes him or herself from the relationship or situation, or their sense of will and self-efficacy is worn away to the point of acquiescence.

When a people perceive themselves to be in a situation in which they cannot effectively control their circumstances and are taught that resistance to being objectified and organized is futile they accept the fact that they must do what the other says.  At first, they may try to suggest alternative approaches in an effort to negotiate infusing the situation with a bit of their own sense of order, but if that proves impossible, they begin to conform to the others demands…to the letter and nothing more.  When the task or project fails, they can foist the failure on the manager’s lack of foresight, failure to communicate clearly, etc. In essence, the cowed employees imagine that precise compliance with a manager’s plan can provide absolution from guilt associated with failure.  While that is ultimately a delusion (witness the Nuremburg Trials after World War II), it is a powerful one and is in fact indicative of the absence of leadership

On the other hand, leaders understand people to be valued peer organisms with lives, hopes, dreams, and a deep desire for purpose and meaning in all the activities in which they engage.  People operate best when they perceive that they are working for a greater good that fulfills on values that they share with other people with whom they are collaborating.

Great leaders empower the people they work with by creating environments in which people who share deeply resonant values can join together in work for a cause that they can identify as noble and meaningful.  Leaders empower their people to achieve their common goals by listening to them express their hopes, dreams and visions, coaching them on strategies for personal efficacy, packaging them with others whose skills can support effective teamwork, and representing to the community its core values and noble cause. In essence, leaders are responsible for managing the culture sustaining environment in which people work in ways that allow people to express themselves to greatest effect.

The purpose of this blog is to explore this kind of leadership