October 13, 2020 • Jason Dressel
People learn through and are inspired most by stories. That is why the greatest leadership development institutions from business schools to military academies use case studies based on real-life experiences to teach the most important lessons. In many areas of life, leaders use storytelling to communicate, educate and call others to action.
In medieval times, the storyteller was a feature on the battlefield, much like today’s war reporters. It was the storyteller’s job to share news from the battlefield with the townsfolk at home, to rally and recruit new troops and boost morale for those already fighting. Entire genres of literature – the Arabic war poetry known as hamasah is one example – evolved to meet this need in an era when access to information was severely limited.
Today, with information being so readily available and instantaneously shared, the leader’s job is not to paint a rose-colored portrait with flowery language, but to cut through the noise, communicate clear messages of resilience and instill confidence in a plan based on the reality on the ground.
Troops still need to be rallied, to believe in the plan and be inspired to give their best. The leader’s role as a storyteller is as important now as ever before. And the best, most relevant and compelling stories reside in the organization’s own history.
This moment for leaders has been universally described as “historic” and “unprecedented.” It began with the COVID-19 pandemic, which led to the economic crisis, which now, with tens of millions unemployed and in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, has fanned the flames of cultural conflict and civil unrest across the country.
Many organizations are taking concrete steps to capture, preserve and provide access to the history being created daily. Museums and cultural institutions from the Smithsonian to The Autry Museum have already launched initiatives to collect artifacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. To archive the corporate response to the current crisis, History Factory has created the Covid-19 Corporate Memory Project.
The COVID-19 Corporate Memory Project is a free and collaborative resource designed to collect, curate, and preserve the real-time history of the pandemic as it is being made by corporations who are responding to the crisis and influencing its outcome. It is a real-time case study to which business leaders can turn for a greater understanding of the corporate response to the current crisis as well as for insight and guidance for how to prepare for and respond effectively to the next crisis.
As of early June, the site includes more than 500 stories from more than 325 enterprises that chronicle corporate decision making in the face of unprecedented challenges, and more corporations are capturing and contributing content, and drawing learning from it daily.
With the obvious urgency of day-to-day operations, it may feel counterintuitive to put plans in place to capture and preserve the history you are making now. But it is imperative, nonetheless. Scenario planning is a c-level responsibility, and the necessity for this kind of information gathering and preparation is heightened during times of great uncertainty and rapid change.
The need to capture living history—within the company and across the broader industry or sector—is an essential step towards more strategic decision making. Moreover, actively capturing your team’s accomplishments and sacrifices will give you stories to tell that celebrate them and project the strength of the organization moving forward.
Ensuring you are preserving this history as your company is experiencing it, reacting to it and making it is one of the most important steps you can take today to set your business up for success in a post-crisis future. Understanding how your customers responded to new ways of delivering your product or service could foster permanent improvements in the way you service the market.
Capturing and communicating the ways your leadership, employees and community responded to the crisis could validate a brand purpose, bringing it to life in ways that inspire your team and supercharge their post-crisis exertion. And documenting how your people adapted to new working conditions and rose to the occasion (or didn’t) will give you a better understanding of your workforce and culture. Assessing your agility in the sudden onslaught of this crisis could help you or your successor better prepare for the next one.
By and large companies aren’t great at preserving their history. They don’t tend to dwell on the past. But in this moment, investing the time to capture today’s history will yield a rich return. Who owns this task? As the central storytelling function of the enterprise, your communications team is probably the most appropriate to lead this initiative, but they will need your support and resources. Future leaders will undoubtedly look for case studies from these unprecedented times to learn from. There will be a next crisis. Prepare for it.
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