The Leader’s Narrative – Utilising Common Denominators

Working at a major global University I often encourage MBA and undergraduate students come to visit me in my office. I purposely seat them so they face 4 large movie posters and more often than not I can see the student’s eyes look at the posters and on many occasions they stop the conversation and ask about the movies I have chosen.

When communicating in a multi-cultural and diverse environment (the University of Manchester has over 40,000 students studying across 20 different institutes and schools of faculty and come from 157 countries and territories) it is important to send and receive messages, through conversation and dialogue, that are relevant, able to connect with the recipient and understood. We often hear about the ‘Leader’s Narrative’ and the power of storytelling and while it is a great approach many leaders, in my experience, feel they don’t have enough ‘interesting and captivating’ stories to call upon.

Finding common denominators for narrative can be a great way to get the point across using the metaphor of a movie as most people, across all cultures and different backgrounds have experienced the power of film. I have seen my colleagues at TomorrowToday using the metaphor of film to great effect when they deliver the ‘Adaptive Leadership in a Dynamic World’ session to senior teams from global corporate organisations.

So, what 4 movies appear on the wall behind my desk you may be thinking and why those 4? Let me take you through my choices:


1. Glengarry Glen Ross. A movie from 1992, based on a stage play, featuring a stellar cast that includes: Al Pacino, Jack Lemmon, Alec Baldwin, Ed Harris, Alan Arkin, Kevin Spacey and Jonathan Pryce. The setting is a real-estate agency somewhere in America that is performing well below expectations. Enter the ‘Motivator from Head Office’ who is brash, loud, rude, threatening and announces that two of the four salespeople will be dismissed if they don’t meet new performance targets by the end of the week. Common denominator is a familiar one in many public and private sector organisations. The wrong key performance indicators (KPIs), incentives or disincentives, will always drive the wrong behaviours. As the movie illustrates with some of the salespeople lying, stealing, cheating and breaking into their own office to get the business results and meet the new KPIs!

2. Good Will Hunting. An Oscar winner from 1997 with Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, Minnie Driver and Robin Williams. Set in Boston about a janitor (Matt Damon) who happens to work at Harvard University. While cleaning in the Mathematics faculty he comes across a blackboard in the hallway with a complex math problem for students to try and solve. He solves the problem and continues with his duties. The faculty want to know the identity of the genius, as none of the students take credit for the solution, and cue the potential for a new life for our Harvard janitor. The common denominator is straightforward in that we should never judge anyone by what they do but what they can do. As the old adage goes, ‘It’s never the job that makes the person but the person that makes the job’. How many people in the business environment can be dismissive of new, young or inexperienced talent or even the person on the reception desk?! There is an inner genius in everyone.

3. 12 Angry Men. The 1957 version, starring Henry Fonda, is the first movie adaptation of this stage play. The synopsis is a jury of 12 coming into the jury room to consider their verdict about a troubled young man accused of murdering his step-father. Nearly all the jurors are expecting and open-and-shut verdict of ‘Guilty’ and then to get on with their social plans and work commitments. Except one man who wants to discuss the details a little more as a young man’s life is at stake because a guilty verdict would equate to the death penalty. Slowly but surely the single objector to a guilty verdict, through logical argument and new perspectives, convinces others that they may have the wrong conclusion in mind. The common denominator is the power of being able to influence and persuade others, without formal authority, can be extremely effective. Our dissenting juror is one of 12 and not the jury foreman , however, being able to articulate points of view that are respectful of other’s opinion and not emotionally charged can really change hearts and minds.

4. Wall Street. The 1987 movie, starring Charlie Sheen and Michael Douglas, designed to illustrate the excesses and unethical behaviours taking place in the world’s most important financial centre, New York. A young analyst discovers that while hard work and dedication to his work can achieve results there is a faster route to the top of the career ladder through insider information and breaking ethical codes of conduct. The film gave us the often used quotes like: ‘Greed is good’. Common denominator is very clear to see, in the long-terms, ‘Greed is not good’. Taking short-cuts and unethical decisions in business will always have a price – even if it is not immediately visible. The 2008 downturn can be partially attributable to the script of Wall Street playing itself out all over again!

While the power of narrative is, beyond any doubt, an effective tool for leaders to utilise there are many stories that can be told where common denominators can perhaps replace personal experience. In my experience, of interacting with leadership groups developing storytelling, many leaders struggle with a suitable topic or experience around which to build their narrative. My perspective is there are many relevant themes and messages that can be extruded from common cultural and social sources (movies, books, plays, poems, lyrics, quotes, etc) which can be just as relevant and effective as your own personal stories. So what would you put on your wall to illustrate your narrative?

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