Manage By Numbers, Lead With Stories


When you are in charge, you have two critical tasks to accomplish. It doesn’t matter if you are a CEO, an entrepreneur, or a pee-wee soccer coach; there are two jobs that you need to excel at to succeed. First, you have to make decisions. Second, you have to get people to execute on those decisions.

That’s it. That’s leadership in a nutshell.

It sounds simple because it is. When you get to the heart of all the strategy sessions and brainstorming and committee meetings, that’s what a leader does: decides what to do and gets the members of the organization to do it. The art and science of doing these two things at a high level… well, that’s a whole new ballgame.

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Most leaders fail because they make the mistake of thinking they can accomplish both with the same skill set. It turns out that they are two very different activities which require completely different approaches.

Engaging with information through stories and processing data are distinct; in fact, they even happen in different parts of the brain. If you can understand the distinction between decision-making and motivation, you’ll stand a much better chance of success.

In linguistics it’s known as “code-switching,” the ability to switch from one language or dialect to another quickly and effortlessly. If you want to effectively lead people, your main focus should be on learning how to “code-switch” between different thinking modalities. You want to know when to tell stories and when to hunker down with a report. You’ll find that the differentiator between OK leaders and great leaders is the knowledge of when to apply each.

An old sales adage says: “People buy emotionally, but they support their decision logically.”  In other words, motivation to act happens because of emotion (which we harness through stories); and confirmation comes from facts and figures (because data is the foundation of logic). But you can’t cross the two. It’s a matter of pulling the right tools out of the toolbox in each situation you are faced with.

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Human beings think in stories. We communicate and we make sense of the world through stories. The earliest cave art was representative of stories – it’s how we engage the emotional and connective parts of ourselves. Relationships are based on the stories we tell each other. When you are trying to rally and move your team, your customers, or even just yourself, you want to hook into the motivational parts of the brain that respond to stories.

But when we are looking to make business decisions, stories are bad. This is mostly because stories don’t take into account all of the necessary variables when making complex decisions.  For example, behavioral economics and psychology is founded on looking at the ways that we aren’t rational when we make decisions… because our brains are using stories and emotions.  These disciplines are full of the mistakes that we make consistently because we use the story parts of the brain to decide what to do.

To make decisions, then, you want to use data, information, numbers, and facts. Do you want to know if an advertising campaign worked?  Look at the ROI report. Are you evaluating vendors?  Look at their past work and client satisfaction rankings.  If you evaluating your processes and systems internally then grab as many facts and figures as you can and analyze them.

But once you’ve made your decision, it’s time to “code-switch” back to stories.  Don’t use that spreadsheet to communicate to your people. If you’ve ever sat in a meeting that was driven by spreadsheets and PowerPoints with a lot of numbers, you’ll know that the main effect is to put everyone to sleep. That’s not how to inspire action!

It can take years to develop the facility to bounce between the two types of thinking effortlessly, but every effective leader needs to know how.  In the end, always remember:

Manage your business by numbers; lead your people with stories.

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 Image: iStockphoto

About The Author

David J.P. Fisher (D. Fish) is a speaker, coach, and author. Building on 20 years of experience as an entrepreneur and sales professional, he combines nuanced strategy and real-world tactics to help professionals become more effective, efficient, and happy. As the president of RockStar Consulting, he works with individuals and organizations to develop more effective networking, sales, and marketing skills. He lives next door to a beautiful cemetery in Evanston, IL, that reminds him to appreciate every day (and to always be on the lookout for zombies).