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Success stories: The tales top bosses tell to keep ahead of the game


Top bosses are expert storytellers who tell versions of the same four stories to keep ahead of the game, researchers have found.

Researchers from Exeter, Newcastle and Strathclyde universities have discovered four powerful messages are built into the often subtle and sometimes self-deprecating stories leaders tell about themselves.
The messages are about defying the odds, staying the course, succeeding through talent and giving back to society. The overall effect of this image-enhancing cocktail is to legitimise their positions as captains of industry.

Storytelling has long been recognised as a way leaders such as Winston Churchill or Steve Jobs maintained legitimacy. However, this research goes further, revealing how and why these stories are such a potent way of keeping stellar careers on track.

The academics spoke to 16 long established leaders from fields including investment banking, the media and energy about their careers both within business and as movers and shakers in society at large.

Professor Charles Harvey, a business leadership expert from Newcastle University said: “This is extremely relevant now because of the economic downturn. At the moment business leaders are under intense scrutiny because of their huge salaries, their bonuses and their company’s practices.”

From their analysis of the interviews, they found that the bosses’ tales revolved around four distinct themes:

•    Defying the odds showing the leader’s courage and fortitude during tough times.
•    Staying the course positioning the leader as a trusted, loyal and determined leader with the will to succeed.
•    Succeeding through talent suggesting that his or her achievements are down to their own efforts and abilities, thereby inspiring confidence that they will continue to deliver further successes.
•    Giving back to society portraying them as motivated by more than material success, placing the well-being of society above narrow self interest by selflessly sharing the fruits of their success.

The team concluded that while the leaders gain personal benefits from telling these stories, which are accurate and true to life, they often feel a ‘moral obligation’ to society to share them – rather than using them to boost their image.

Professor Harvey said; “The point of telling these stories is that business leaders operate in a world where reputations are often hard won but very easily lost. So what they need constantly to do is to justify their position at the top of the tree. They need to make themselves stand out so they are seen by themselves and by others as fit to run and keep running their organisation”.

“What these businessmen are doing is creating a myth of the self. This is no different to what leaders have done through the ages. For example, Saxon kings would have manuscripts decorated depicting their deeds and lineage to justify their anointment as King.”

Professor Mairi Maclean, from University of Exeter Business School, who led the research said: “Inequalities of power and status require greater justification at times of economic crisis. Business leaders are acutely aware of this. In telling of how they give back to society, they present themselves as socially sensitive and rounded individuals who care about others’.

Professor Robert Chia from Strathclyde University Business School said: “Business careers require careful nurturing as leaders transition from one phase to another. The project of self-construction is a ceaseless quest and as the individual changes so too stories of the self are reformulated ever so subtly in the process thereby helping prepare and ease the path for future possibilities. Stories are not passive, they help those who craft them to get ahead and stay on top.”

The paper was published in Human Relations in January 2012 (volume 65, no. 1, pp. 17-40). Click to read the paper.

Examples of famous business people’s stories which include the four messages are:

•    Serial entrepreneur Duncan Bannatyne was dishonourably discharged from the navy when he was 19. He defied the odds going from nothing to buying an ice-cream van for £450 and eventually selling the enterprise for £28,000. He used this to found a care home business which he then sold for £26million. He stayed the course and opened a £12million spa during the recession. He succeeded through talent with his ability to spot the next successful business venture. He gives back to society with the Bannatyne Trust which has donated almost £2million to charity and in his role as an anti-smoking campaigner.

•    Dragon’ s Den star Hillary Devey defied the odds by setting up her successful business even though she was single mother and had to sell her house to fund it. She stayed the course during the first year of business by paying employees before herself and going without Christmas dinner for herself and her son. She succeeded through talent to become Chief Executive of the number one pallet freight company in the country. She gives back to society by campaigning for charity and is patron of The Princess Royal Trust for Carers and The Stroke Association.  

Please note: The research focused on 16 anonymised business leaders. However, the above examples were not included in the research. The four messages have been applied to freely available information about each of the business people.

published on: 27 February 2012