The Power of Narrative (And What’s Your Nuclear Banana?)
Lately, I’ve been pondering questions about narrative.
How is it created? What forces shape it? Who influences and speaks into it? And finally, who owns it?
Last year I shared some personal information with a friend, and they assured me they’d keep our discussion confidential.
I immediately thought of the aphorism: Three people can keep a secret if two of them are dead.
I didn’t go there. Instead, I remarked that after I share information of any sort —whether a belief, an opinion, an incident, or a story — it’s no longer my information to control.
After information is “out there,” the person who shared it no longer manages the narrative.
The Link Between Culture and Narrative
We’re currently witnessing a man in Russia who was forged in the darkest crucible of the Cold War following a woefully outdated playbook. He’s desperately clinging to the idea that he can control the narrative. Facts are manipulated and outright manufactured. Legitimately elected leaders — and those they lead — are demonized as Nazis. Horrific images are branded as propaganda or “fake news.” All of this is in service of creating an artificial, counter-factual narrative.
Enough of the world sees clearly what is happening, and they reject this artificial narrative. They choose to see things as they truly are instead of the way someone else wishes they might.
And THAT is why culture matters in organizations. Only with a strong culture can a company ensure the rejection of artificial narratives.
Each individual human has a set of principles, beliefs, and operating instructions. It’s slightly different for all of us yet it guides our actions — and actions matter. They matter more than words and more than whatever images we shoot forth into the ether in a vain attempt to shape how others perceive us. (Yes, I am calling out every perfectly posed and filtered “influencer” out there). Our actions enable others to see us as we are no matter how hard we might try to control their perception of us.
This is the truth of narrative.
We are what others say we are. And if we’re authentic, there is alignment between what others say we are and what we believe ourselves to be.
The same is true with organizations.
Much like an individual’s narrative, your organization’s narrative is one that you can shape, influence, and speak into. Yet, ultimately, you don’t control that narrative. Others do.
So how do you shape it to reflect the reality of your organization? The best way is to create and nurture an authentic culture for all stakeholders that enables them to reinforce a reality-based narrative.
How it works is deceptively simple in theory and ridiculously hard in practice. It goes something like this:
- Create, implement, and embed core values.
- Meaningful core values create guide rails.
- Guide rails shape acceptable behaviors.
- Behaviors beget actions — which, in turn, lead to stories.
- Stories inform and help establish narrative.
- An established narrative reflects your true culture.
Essentially, culture springs directly from values. This is not to dismiss the role (and power) that stories hold within your narrative. (For more on that, I refer you to my friend Antarctic Mike Pierce). Yet the stories you share reflect your values. And how you share and position your values matters a great deal.
To that point, I’ll leave you with one final thought.
What’s Your Nuclear Banana?
When you travel as I do, you often see interesting things. Last year I saw one of those “interesting things” on the road when I passed an independent truck driver on the highway. I’m certain he was an independent hauler because in big, yellow block letters, his cab proudly proclaimed the words NUCLEAR BANANA.
I don’t know what that phrase means, but it was important enough that this individual had it stenciled on his cab for the world to see. It’s likely a reflection of something he values. However, without context, I’m reduced to manufacturing my own stories and creating my own narrative about it. While Mr. Nuclear Banana knows what he stands for and took a stab at letting the world know what he values, it’s up to us to craft the narrative.
So, as you absorb the idea of narrative, consider these questions:
- What’s your Nuclear Banana?
- What do you stand for?
- How have you created context around those values?
- Finally, if you do you have a Nuclear Banana, are you proud enough to shout it from the rooftops and allow others to pick up your narrative torch?
Perhaps you’d like to make confident proclamations about your Nuclear Banana. Or perhaps you’re still struggling to uncover what to call it. Either way, give me a ring. I’m always interested in helping people lay the foundation for a powerful narrative.