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What’s Your Story? (Barry Goldberg on Leadership)

Barry Goldberg on Leadership
3 min read

THIS IS AN OPINION

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There was a time in human history when an eclipse was unpredictable, unexplainable, frightening and unsettling to our psyches. Without science and provable facts, we needed a story to fill in the gap. “The gods are angry!” or “A dragon is eating the sun!”

We needed the story. We needed an explanation for what was unexplainable. In short, we made up a story based on whatever we believed in order to feel better about what was happening that we could not control, expect or explain.

We still fill in the spaces of what we do not know with our story about it — usually the story we prefer. I am not talking about overt lying or purposeful fraud, but about the subtle ways that we can create a story that mitigates the impact of a situation, especially when the circumstance is a problem of our own making or a risky opportunity that we covet.

Recently, one of my manufacturing clients surfaced a new opportunity for contract work. They knew that their capacity was spoken for at solid margins and, moreover, that much of the manufacturing line was already overdue for planned maintenance. Of course, no business wants to decline an order from a new, potentially long-term, profitable client. Yet they knew going in that there was significant risk to delivery or to their capital equipment by taking the contract. The story they told themselves was that it was a reasonable risk and that they would develop a solution to both maintain their equipment and acquire a new major customer. As of this writing, both are at serious risk.

This is different from outright fraud. This loss stems from our willingness to let ego and desire interfere with clear decision-making. We tell ourselves a story and put existing business at risk on the altar of a new opportunity.

Of course, any business wants to pursue a new opportunity, but if our strategy is to justify a story that suits our desires, rather than develop a strategy that will accommodate them, trouble is often on the horizon.

Here are some ideas I have from clients whose businesses deal with this issue on a regular basis:

Do the planning with everyone at the table and make it safe to bring the bad news. Come with data rather than just the concern. Then have the group discuss possibilities.

Start with understanding the real and full impact of the decision. Keep in mind that naysayers are not the enemy but the protectors of the business base that could be threatened.

Plan from a blank slate. If you did not already have the business that would be impacted, what else would you need to know?

Do not assume it is a closed system. What would have to change to have a both/and answer without trying to cheat physics or economic realities?

Our psyches are designed for stories. We build and edit them internally, often ignoring limiting conditions or competing priorities. That is what makes our capacity for invention and innovation so remarkable. But by failing to ask the hard questions about capacity and resources, we can easily “buy the story” that could bring down the business.


I. Barry Goldberg is a credentialed executive coach with a global client base. Reach out to him at barryg@ibgoldberg.com or visit his blog at ibarrygoldberg.substack.com
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