Monday, April 7, 2014

Recommended Readings for Creative Leaders for the First Half of 2014

Last fall, I generated a list of 13 recommended readings from the second half of the year on various topics related to creativity, leadership, and organizational and business success (http://onforb.es/19CsYft). Now, in response to numerous requests, I want to offer another baker’s dozen of recommendations for creative leaders curious about helpful readings that have appeared (or will soon) during the first half of 2014.  Once again, they comprise a diverse list, written by industry leaders, journalist or academics focusing on a host of practical and theoretical concerns and providing a wealth of insights, models and concrete advice.


(1) Julian Barling, The Science of Leadership: Lessons from Research for Organizational Leaders (Oxford University Press)
Barling, an organizational behavior professor at Canada’s Queen’s University, explores some central debates about leadership – whether leaders are born or made, the relevance of gender, the import of followership – by reference to mostly psychological research conducted over the past two decades. The result is an accessible and frequently illuminating tour of the evidence shaping and underlying popular if often superficial debates. Perhaps most directly relevant to many readers will be the question (and layered answer) about the effectiveness of leadership development programs.

(2) Warren Berger, A More Beautiful Question (Bloomsbury)
What if companies had mission questions rather than mission statements? Looking closely at some of our most creative organizations, including Google, IDEO and Netflix, journalist Berger (who wrote the excellent Glimmer on design thinking) describes the importance of generating a culture of inquiry and learning. The result is potentially paradigm-shifting: rather than assuming great leaders, creatives, innovators, and entrepreneurs possess the distinctive ability to provide clear answers, the book proposes that asking the right questions might be a more fundamental skill.
(3) Adam Bryant, Quick and Nimble: Lessons from Leading CEOs on How to Create a Culture of Innovation (Times Books)
Offering consistently insightful glimpses of today’s leadership challenges and innovations, the New York Times ‘Corner Office’ column of interviews with executives appears twice weekly. In the second book drawing from his work on the column, Adam Bryant highlights lessons in innovation, change and, especially, building creative cultures. The result is a crisp summary of current leadership practice illustrated with helpful real-life examples of effective teams, increased respect, better conversations, and ongoing learning by leaders and organizations alike.
(4) Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies (Norton)
How are digital technologies – from hardware and software to networks and data sets – fueling exponential growth and profound social and economic change? Two leading thinkers from MIT explore the forces reinventing fields as diverse as medicine, retail, and transportation and having far-ranging implications for creative collaboration, business leadership and policy-making alike. Maybe most importantly, these dramatic changes will enable and necessitate a revamping of our educational system in ways that both leverage new technologies and prepare people for the transformed economy. 
(5) Ed Catmull and Amy Wallace, Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces that Stand in the Way of True Inspiration (Random House)
Catmull, co-founder and President of Pixar Animation Studios, one of the world’s most admired creative businesses, shares insights and proven techniques for harnessing talent, forming teams and structuring organizations, and producing fresh and original work. Mining his company’s illustrious production history for helpful examples, he and Wallace devote special attention to the challenges of building and sustaining a creative culture, such as brutally honest postmortems, ‘braintrusts,’ and regularly bringing in ‘new blood.’
(6) Lynda Gratton, The Key: How Corporations Succeed by Solving the World’s Toughest Problem (McGraw-Hill)
Professor of management practice at the London Business School and founder of the Hot Spots Movement, Gratton has produced a fresh model for scaling impact and innovating for good. ‘The Key’ is to coordinate the latest approaches to organizational design and talent development with purpose-driven support for broader communities. The outcome, she argues, is business organizations capable of confronting and solving global problems like rampant unemployment and climate change.
(7) Arianna Huffington, Thrive: The Third Metric to Redefining Success and Creating a Life of Well-being, Wisdom, and Wonder (Harmony)
Exhausted and sleep-deprived, Arianna Huffington fell and injured herself in 2007.  Amidst a battery of medical tests and soul-searching, she came to realize that there was more to success than money and power and that she – and we – needed a third metric for celebrating our lives, maintaining our sense of wonder, prioritizing our relationships, and remaining compassionate and generous. Combining personal details of her own journey with the latest psychological and sleep research, Huffington has produced a manifesto for redefining well-being, work and success.
(8) Keith Reinhard, Any Wednesday (Any Wednesday)
An original Mad Man, Reinhard was an advertising creative legend before orchestrating the merger that formed Omnicom and becoming the CEO of DDB Worldwide. For more than two decades, he penned brief weekly memos filled with wit, wisdom and advice to all his employees. This collection of 104 of those pieces both shares some of his favorite insights for inspiring creative excellence and demonstrates one way he put consistent creative leadership into accessible and effective practice.
(9) Simon Sinek, Leaders Eat Last: Why Some Teams Pull Together and Others Don’t (Portfolio)
Sinek is the perceptive, best-selling author of Start with Why (your company exists and should be meaningful to your customers and society…).  Here, he turns to the crucial questions of how leaders can foster and support safety, trust and cooperation inside that organization as well as greater kinship with customers. While citing evolutionary biology and brain chemistry research, the book ultimately argues for the fundamental leadership values of hard work, empathy and sacrifice as bases for providing a safe environment for people to grow and succeed.
(10) Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen, Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well (Viking)
The authors of the invaluable Difficult Conversations take on an equally challenging aspect of work and life in this new volume: how (well) do we receive feedback? Extending some of the principles of their earlier work to being less defensive and building richer relationships to engaging the feedback of others, Stone and Heen also show how to gather and process honest insights about oneself.  The result is a book that very practically enables the development of greater self-awareness and deeper learning so helpful to becoming more effective leaders.
(11) Robert Sutton and Hayagreeva Rao, Scaling Up Excellence: Getting to More Without Settling for Less (Crown Business)
This is a major work based on a decade’s research by two Stanford professors on the pervasive challenge of spreading and multiplying success in organizations. Looking across industries, and from small start-ups hoping to grow to mature large firms seeking to avoid stagnation, Sutton and Rao offer insights and proven practices for ‘scaling up’ farther, faster, and more effectively. In the process, they provide actionable advice on such vexing issues as balancing individual and organizational needs, replicating successful mindsets, and eliminating destructive behaviors.
(12) Nick Udall, Riding the Creative Rollercoaster: How Leaders Evoke Creativity, Productivity and Innovation (Kogan Page)
The current Chair of a World Economic Forum council on ‘New Models of Leadership,’ Udall here lays out an approach to developing both better leadership and more effective team and organizational innovation. The ‘creative rollercoaster’ has leaders guiding their teams through the highs of the known to the lows of the invisible, unconscious and unknown in order to enable creative tensions to emerge and be held long enough for innovation to occur. Building greater self-awareness and then systemic awareness in this way allows teams to achieve more consistent breakthroughs.
(13) Barry Wacksman and Chris Stutzman, Connected by Design: Seven Principles of Business Transformation (Jossey-Bass)

R/GA is one of the world’s most consistently successful creative digital agencies. Wacksman, its Chief Growth Officer, describes how the agency has been a pioneer in helping develop new business models featuring highly interactive eco-systems of interrelated products, digital services, brand loyalty and continuous customer engagement. He then goes on to identify how such ‘functional integration,’ achieved by valued firms like Apple, Nike, Amazon, and Activision, can be understood according to principles ranging from ‘Utility is Relevance’ to ‘Lead like the world depends on it.’

Friday, March 7, 2014

Leading, Fast and Slow


Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg likes to say that the company aims to ‘move fast and break things.'  In a 2012 letter attached to the company’s pre-IPO filing to the SEC, he wrote, ‘the idea is that if you never break anything, you’re probably not moving fast enough’ and ‘moving fast enables us to build more things and learn faster.'  Zuckerberg at the time called the more general attitude guiding his company, ‘The Hacker Way,’ ‘an approach to building that involves continuous improvement and iteration.’  The words capture what has increasingly become an article of faith in contemporary business: faster is not only better but necessary to gain and sustain advantage and possibly even to survive. 

Like much of the business and management thinking we embrace today, particularly around innovation, the Facebook example grows from the experience of start-ups, and more specifically that of programmers and coders, in technology.  (We could even arguably apply a broader term, ‘The Silicon Valley Way’ – whether actually practiced there or not – to make clear the benefits of going fast.)  Again, from Zuckerberg: ‘as most companies grow, they slow down too much because they're more afraid of making mistakes than they are of losing opportunities by moving too slowly.’  Cast at this level of generality, these are useful words for any organization seeking to grow and prosper.

The question less frequently asked is how leaders should put such an overarching imperative to work fast(er) into practice – particularly across different kinds of businesses and industries.

One sensible approach has been to break down the way businesses work, whether they are a start-up or in maturity, and assess the different stages.  In this way, Eric Ries’s LeanStartup movement looks closely at the product development process in order to eliminate unnecessary or wasteful practices and to prioritize value-producing ones.  Concretely, this approach translates into the faster development of offerings to address the needs of customers and the earlier release of what Ries calls a ‘minimum viable product’ to the market.  Ries’s work has had greatest impact on tech companies, with Dropbox, Intuit and the social learning site, Grockit, among those that publicly acknowledge their successful adoption of Lean Startup principles.  Speed here saves time and investment dollars by building on better customer feedback and performance indicators and by driving a development process that supports continuous (re-)deployment of improved products.

Speed throughout this process is essential.  Yet not all stages in the startup or general product development processes are necessarily equivalent, and as Roger L.Martin recently suggested, rapid, iterative prototyping may perhaps be the most vital.  While that doesn’t mean other stages, like advance research and metric formation or follow-up decisions, should be slow, it does raise the question about the optimal relative speeds of various stages of the product development or other processes.  A commonsense conclusion to draw is that every firm, indeed every product development or related process, is different and discrete stages of development should benefit from adaptable and often quick decision-making.  For Martin, reflecting on David Kelley’s pioneering design thinking work helping clients develop products at IDEO, such an approach has the potential benefit of delivering both customer value and a business client user experience.  To accomplish this, leadership must be capable of going both fast and slow (or, at least, slower) and of being able continuously to determine which pace is best when.

Business and management research and practice like that of Ries and of Martin offer valuable insights for enhancing those leadership capabilities.  Another, perhaps lesser-known voice here is John Sullivan, a talent management consultant and professor at San Francisco State, who has referred to himself as ‘Dr. Speed.’  He regularly blogs about the potential advantages of speed and even delineates 20 key components of organizational speed.  Smartly, these range from building a ‘culture of speed’ and integrating faster processes to measuring, rewarding and training for speed and change across organizations.

As a talent management specialist, Sullivan is particularly keen to highlight how the right people, trained to be fast, are critical to sustaining peak organizational performance.  His work brings to mind the example of Pixar, which is committed not only to expeditious learning but to bringing in ‘new blood,’ that is, to having the right talent in place to move quickly in achieving specific creative goals.  Sullivan’s lists of advantages and key components may, in fact, be most useful not as checklists to be pursued unqualifiedly, risking burnout or loss of morale, but more as bases for individual leaders to consider how best to incorporate speed customized to the needs and situations of their firms.  Slow may ‘kill organizations,’ as he puts it, but only the judicious acceleration and application of speed, with the right talent, to different aspects of business will allow them to thrive.

Better understanding the complexity of a startup’s or existing firm’s needs and how to use speed to address them is only part of the leader’s challenge.  Another is the deeper understanding of her or his own decision-making processes and the ways that speed shapes them.  Recent psychological, behavioral and neuroscience research have yielded some extraordinarily relevant results for leaders seeking to go beyond twentieth-century models of left brain-right brain thinking and to benefit from current approaches to cognitive processes.

Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman’s best-selling Thinking,Fast and Slow offers one such description of the two systems of the mind.  ‘System 1’ thought processes operate rapidly, intuitively, even automatically, and its decisions are based in immediate context, associative memories from our past, and emotional reactions.  ‘System 2’ thought processes are more deliberate, rational, and they require our effort to focus, pay attention and apply logic and evidence.  An important outcome of Kahneman’s five decades of work (much in collaboration with Amos Tversky) has been to undo the assumption that we humans are wholly rational actors and assess all the relevant information before logically making choices.  System 2 monitors and can override System 1’s inclination but that requires ongoing effort and energy we don’t always expend.  The relative speeds of the two systems, which give the book its title, also prompt Kahneman to be critical of System 1 decision-making.

In a very useful corrective, Scott Barry Kaufman and Jerome L. Singer argue that both systems or types of thinking styles have a range of positive and negative attributes to be recognized.  For example, while ‘experiential thinking’ (akin to System 1) is marked positively by empathy, spontaneity, emotional expressiveness, and intuition ability, it also has the negative attributes of naïve optimism, stereotyped thinking and unrealistic beliefs.  The ‘rational thinking style’ (System 2), meanwhile, possesses a positive worldview, realistic thing, self-esteem, and conscientiousness but is difficult to sustain and often has a dismissive style.  As they say, pointedly, ‘the key to both intelligence and creativity is the ability to flexibly switch between different modes of thought depending on the task demands.’  System 1 may generate various failures of reasoning and decision-making, in other words, but it also contributes to creativity – that which is both novel and useful.

Put differently, research shows that to be creative we need to be able both to concentrate intensely and engage current activities and to remain open-minded and notice our own conscious reactions.  Thinking fast and even breaking a few things, we might say, while still retaining some slowing awareness to ensure we move in the generally right direction.  For leaders, too, especially of creative talent, teams and organizations, such a balance of close engagement and meta-awareness, of speed and its intelligent, strategic deployment, seems essential. 

Friday, January 31, 2014

Ten Lessons of Start-ups for Established Businesses

The Berlin School of Creative Leadership is traveling this month to the Bay Area in Northern California for the second week of the U.S. residency of its Executive MBA program.  Among the key topics orienting the week are innovation, agile leadership, and effective, entrepreneurial and ethical teamwork.  Overall, for already experienced leaders of creative communications firms, the week offers an opportunity for immersion in an atmosphere of entrepreneurship and innovative start-ups.  It consequently prompts a crucial question for many creative leaders, What are the lessons of start-ups and early-stage entrepreneurial businesses for more established firms?

An undeniable romance surrounds start-ups and entrepreneurship.  The prospect of building something entirely new, of developing an original idea and implementing it successfully in the market, is alluring.  Even viewed more prosaically, such an extended process of risk-taking in order to create new value and build a successful business, is exciting. Established firms are, by contrast, fraught with a host of messy, pre-existing practicalities. They already contain some version of all the elements, from products or services and strategy to talent, organizational structures and cultures, and leadership that many entrepreneurs dream of instituting anew.

Of course, the distinction is hardly so sharp. In Silicon Valley in 2014, amidst the continuing percolation of entrepreneurial energy and effort, part of what’s most fascinating to consider is how relatively recent start-ups have grown rapidly into large, established firms.  In only 10 or 15 years, in some cases, companies have become among the largest, best-known companies on the planet.  For example, Google, which the Berlin School will be visiting, was incorporated in 1997 and now has more than 46,000 employees.  Increasingly for these still relatively young firms grown, the challenge is how to sustain that early energy and avoid the loss of entrepreneurial spirit.

Older firms, too, have sought to embrace the principles and tools of start-ups as means to becoming more innovative. In a recent LinkedIn post, Beth Comstock, CMO of GE, discusses her experience at one of the world’s largest corporations. She opens by saying that she and her colleagues consider their efforts “to act small even if we’re big…as the biggest implementation of Lean Startup principles on earth.” Comstock then offers four key learnings from the company’s recent past:
·      Simplicity is the key
·      We have to work fast
·      We don’t have all the answers, but you might
·      Uncertainty is okay
The objective, shewrites, is to find constructive ways to be “constantly tinkering with our business models to get leaner and more agile and to get closer to our customers.”

Comstock’s reference is to the LeanStartup methodology developed by Eric Ries and among the most influential operating today.  Lean is, for Ries, a management process tailored for accelerated new product development and, especially, delivery to customers. “Startups exist not to make stuff, make money, or serve customers,” he has said.  “They exist to learn how to build a sustainable business. This learning can be validated scientifically, by running experiments that allow us to test each element of our vision.” Ries goes on to specify that,  “The unit of progress for Lean Startups is validated learning – a rigorous method for demonstrating progress when one is embedded in the soil of extreme uncertainty.”  Such priorities, as well as the following key principles of Lean, should resonate with leaders of established businesses seeking to prioritize learning, innovation and leadership at all levels of their firms:  
1.     Entrepreneurs are everywhere
2.     Entrepreneurship is management
3.     Validated Learning
4.     Innovation Accounting
5.     Build-Measure-Learn

Ries’ priorities indeed arguably dovetail with some of the major elements of other recent and current approaches to change and strategic management in existing firms.  For instance, his imperative to model, measure and specially learn faster in Lean parallels the urgency of John Kotter’s renowned change model (http://www.kotterinternational.com/our-principles/changesteps). (There’s a fascinating study waiting to be written more generally comparing Ries’ Lean methodology to Kotter’s 8-step change model.)  Likewise, the faster pace and greater uncertainty of business and markets, and as a result the demand for the greater speed of effective strategic leadership, underpins Rita Gunther McGrath’s paradigm-shifting argument for “transient advantage” in The End of Competitive Advantage

Exactly that kind of parallel, combined with successful examples of existing companies like GE, allows us to identify principles and practices that are central to building start-ups and also potentially valuable to established firms seeking to build new businesses and gain new advantage. 

1. Speed
The essential argument of McGrath’s The End of Competitive Advantage, as just noted, is that a new, faster-paced marketplace places different demands upon individual businesses for success.  Her idea of “transient advantage” directly recognizes how the most competitive leadership and strategic response to these new conditions is speed (http://hbr.org/2013/06/transient-advantage/ar/2).  One of McGrath’s favorite examples is Milliken & Co., which transformed itself, through continuous strategic reassessment and reprioritization, from a company that “had been largely focused on textiles and chemicals through the 1960s, and advanced materials and flameproof products through the 1990s, had become a leader in specialty materials and high-IP specialty chemicals by the 2000s.”

2. Adaptability
R/GA, the legendary creative agency (which the Berlin School EMBA group will be visiting in New York the week before hitting the Bay Area), has re-invented itself every nine years since its founding in the mid-1970s.  This has meant ranging, always successfully, from computer-assisted filmmaking (1977-1985) to an integrated digital studio (2005-2012).  The regular willingness to reassess its place in the marketing universe demonstrates an extraordinary adaptability to rapidly changing environmental conditions and internal capabilities alike (http://www.rga.com/the-next-9-years/).    

3. Customer-centrism
Amazon’s commitment to service is renowned, from founder Jeff Bezos’s keeping an “empty chair” at board meetings as a reminder of the customer being in charge to the required annual call-center training required of all employees to maintain their humility and empathy (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=56GFhr9r36Y). Such priorities of start-ups as gathering and working with customer feedback (increasingly data, as well) and getting products in customers’ hands faster and more easily should also be objectives for both existing and potential new businesses of established firms.

4. New business opportunities
Since its founding in 1997, Netflix has continually reinvented itself by exploring new business opportunities in the rapidly changing media and entertainment sector.  Such exploration has been driven both by competitive necessity and new technological and market possibilities.  Seeking to “revolutionize the way people watch TV shows and movies,” the company has repeatedly revised its business model to offer multiple services, often combining distinct offerings like streaming with DVD home delivery, and recently, with original programming in an effort to be “the world’s leading Internet television network”

5. New structures
Of the many changes needing to be made within existing businesses to become more entrepreneurial, organizational re-structuring and resource sharing are among the easiest to attempt and also the most difficult to get right.  These crucial changes need to be tied, as P&G’s Connect + Develop program has been, to core tenets of the organization’s culture and identity.  In building an open innovation platform and structuring a Global Business Development team around its complex global operations, P&G met its initial goal, in only four years, of having half its innovations fueled by external partnerships (http://www.pgconnectdevelop.com/home/pg_open_innovation.html).

6. New metrics and testing – particularly of existing talent
Most firms recognize the imperative to create aggressive and appropriate metrics for testing new product or service offerings – and, as the Lean Startup methodology would have it, embrace “validated learning.”  More challenging is the inclusion of existing talent in the process, particularly in ways that allow their skills to be re-directed to new projects.  In the December issue of Harvard Business Review, Professor David Garvin details “How Google Sold Its Engineers on Management” by making the company’s management assessment and talent development more systematic while retaining its humanity and eary-stage spirit of innovation (http://blogs.hbr.org/2013/12/this-is-what-it-looks-like-when-a-google-manager-gets-feedback/). 

7. Uncertainty is okay
“Navigating uncertainty is what defines entrepreneurship,” writes Beth Comstock.  At GE, she goes on, in the aforementioned LinkedIn post, “we’ve made it a point to protect some ideas from the pressures of developed operations. We have a class of internal start ups that need to be nurtured, like GE's Durathon battery, a green backup power source for cell phone towers in Africa that started life as a hybrid locomotive battery.”  Enabling those start ups with space, time and resources to develop, without any certainty of positive results, is crucial today.

8. Balancing new and existing, inventing and improving
In management terms, “ambidexterity” is the ability of firms to exploit existing, often mature markets and to explore new, often emerging ones simultaneously.  At the heart of established firms’ efforts to spur innovation, the challenge is how to allocate resources to strike an appropriate balance between these two often conflicting strategic directions.  Harvard’s Michael Tushman has incisively analyzed the more than decade-long successful efforts at IBM to grow new businesses like Pervasive Computing, which allows mobile workers greater access to data and supports M(mobile)-commerce (http://blogs.hbr.org/2012/07/exploring-and-exploiting-growt/).

9. Top leadership buy-in
In March 2013, one of the world’s successful media companies, Axel Springer, sent its top executives (flying economy-class and then sharing rooms in a two-star hotel) to Silicon Valley to learn the language of digital entrepreneurship.  The results included their setting up their own garage for innovation (!) and, more substantively, returning to Germany where they became roles models and drivers of change within their company (http://www.inma.org/blogs/media-entrepreneur/post.cfm/finding-common-ground-with-digital-nerds-in-silicon-valley).

10. Simplicity pays
Annually for the last four years, the strategic branding firm Siegel+Gale has ranked global brands for simplicity (http://simplicity.siegelgale.com/2013/). The European-based discount supermarket brand, ALDI, ranked as the #1 global brand in 2013. Despite being far-flung with more than 9,000 stores worldwide and a brand that “focuses on the essentials, no matter what city,” ALDI’s good-value-for-the-money reputation has adapted to thrive before, during and since the economic crisis.  Beyond serving customers, however, Siegel+Gale’s research shows how innovation within a firm like ALDI is served by the greater clarity of shared purpose and goals accompanying brand simplicity.


All these lessons should inform the decisions and behaviors of two central actors in any established firm wanting to be more entrepreneurial and act more like a start-up.  The first actor is existing talent.  While unavoidable that organizational transformations often require the hard, if hopefully mutual, realization that formerly valuable talent no longer fit in new priorities and plans, the participation of current workers in any entrepreneurial venture is vital for its success.  Some talent will obviously be more directly involved in such efforts than others, but all need to recognize the shared purpose. 

The other actors, of course, are leaders.  Some of the lessons here, like adaptability or uncertainty or senior leadership buy-in, explicitly reference the demands (and opportunities) of leadership.  Yet several key principles and practices of start-ups, like Ries’ “entrepreneurship is everywhere” and “entrepreneurship is management” accord well with the more generally valuable precept that leaders, in existing firms, especially, are defined by what they do rather than by where they sit or the titles they hold.  In the end, at the heart of established firms should be leaders seeking, like their counterparts in start-ups, to grow business faster, serve customers better, transform existing markets and make inroads into new ones, and creatively sustain the elusive spirit of ongoing innovation.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

The Stories We Tell

My first reaction upon viewing Martin Scorsese’s new film, The Wolf of Wall Street, was how closely it resembled Goodfellas, the director’s masterful account of mob informant Henry Hill’s life in organized crime.  Like that historical snapshot of the American Dream colorfully run off the rails, the new film tracks the wanton greed and excessive personal behaviors of Jordan Belfort (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) during the 1990s.  Belfort made tens of millions of dollars selling “penny stocks” and manipulating the stock market through his firm, Stratton Oakmont, before being convicted of securities fraud and money laundering.

While the Goodfellas parallel, in particular, urges Scorsese’s current production to be viewed as a cautionary tale of unbridled Capitalism, what else the film says about “Wall Street” or contemporary business and markets – what more specific stories it may be telling about them – is less clearcut.  In a characteristically incisive New York Times column, Joe Nocera asks exactly that question about the film’s larger message regarding business.  Commenting on Scorsese’s relentless preoccupation with his protagonists’ sexual obsessions and drug use (rather than, say, the specifics of Belfort’s fraudulent trading activities), Nocera concludes that, “to use Stratton Oakmont to represent Wall Street doesn’t begin to get at Wall Street’s sins.”    

Yet Nocera’s question touches on the more fundamental matter of how we tell meaningful stories either about specific businesses or business activities.  Typically, of course, as in the film’s preoccupation with the dissipated indulgences of DiCaprio’s Belfort, we tend to focus on individual leaders and their actions.  Consider a few of the prevailing narratives of business today: the visionary entrepreneur, the rapacious exploiter, or the small businessman at the heart of the economy.  Some corporations do acquire a collective identity that shapes their stories – Enron as the hubristic “smartest guys in the room” or Goldman Sachs as a “great vampire squid” – but they are exceptions. 

In Hollywood and, arguably, the wider popular imagination alike, there’s a further need to simplify and dramatize the activities of business like stock trading.  At one point in The Wolf of Wall Street’s occasional voiceover, in fact, DiCaprio’s Belfort begins to describe the specifics of his trading activities only to acknowledge they don’t really matter to the audience and stops.  Moreover, any connection in the film between Stratton Oakmont’s actual dealings in the 1990’s and the ethics of big Wall Street firms’ early trafficking of Collateralized Debt Obligations (CDOs) becomes speculative, at best, as the film’s story increasingly dwells on Belfort’s own spiraling out of control.  The complexity of such activities and any ethical or legal claims to be made about them, much like the operations of other financial entities like hedge funds or private equity firms, make them difficult if not impossible to render meaningfully in dramatic stories.  It should give us pause in thinking about how we characterize the activities, and differentiators, of our own businesses in the stories we tell of them.

Formal business education regularly addresses the challenge of telling business stories.  The case method thus often requires that firms, their constituent units and leaders, be analyzed closely.  Cases can obviously be structured in different ways, but the most typical approaches rely on carefully drawn narratives: decision-making cases confront the protagonist (and students) with a decision freighted with the complexity of preceding events, for example, while best practice cases present the emergence of those practices through a particular sequence of decisions and events.  Harvard Business cases often go so far as to intentionally scramble the elements of business narratives in order for students to have to make sense of them.  Dexterous re-construction of the full story becomes the touchstone for analysis and learning – while also modeling the valuable skill of producing coherent stories from the disparate facts and other pieces of information found in everyday life.

More broadly, the stories of business organizations that circulate externally cannot but help shape the wider understanding of those organizations (regardless of their accuracy).  Marketers in this way rely on narratives to construct and differentiate the status of company (or its constituent product) brands.  As media and entertainment mogul Peter Guber makes clear in his bestselling Tell to Win, the value of stories is the “emotional transportation” they offer customers or clients.  That “transportation” may lead to very different ends, of escape or transformation or even-self discovery, but it is ultimately borne on the wings of compelling stories that touch our hearts as customers, partners, or collaborators.

Internal to businesses, narratives, what some call “organizational scripts,” can spell out the distinctive and locally appropriate behaviors to be performed in various situations.  Some of these are “origin stories,” of founders’ decisions or critical events, while others capture the defining ways the business organizations manage change, solve problems or otherwise collectively behave.  Still other stories are aspirational and define the organization according to the future it envisions (for example, in Google’s case, having all the world’s information organized).  In fact, the most influential organizational stories are often those that describe where individual workers want to go together and how they aim to get there. 

At the center of such scripting and storytelling are leaders.  In their Animal Spirits, which argues that humans are hard-wired to organize information and experience into narratives, Nobel Laureates George Akerlof and Robert J. Shiller noted that, “Great leaders are foremost creators of stories.”  Creators, yes, but also evangelists, translators, exemplars and finally guardians of the organizational DNA organized into and relayed through stories.

Like all genetic influences, however, the core elements of given stories of organizations and business activities only go so far in shaping their eventual impact.  Ever-changing environmental dynamics, say, of shifting markets, require that stories be continually refined.  In his conclusion to The Leader’s Guide to Storytelling, Stephen Denning makes the crucial point that narrative elements and techniques should ultimately serve as the basis of connection and communication with employees and customers.  Rather than being self-contained and complete, in other words, stories should convey essential truths about the business they describe while still having rough edges and opening out to continuing interaction.  Although that doesn’t necessarily work in Hollywood’s scripts and productions, such openness and adaptability in meaningful storytelling about organizations and business activities are among the paramount responsibilities – and most powerful opportunities – of real leadership.