I don’t know how it’s been for you – but for me, the past three-and-a-half weeks have seen football come home like never before. I’ve found myself deeply engaged by England’s World Cup odyssey, not least Gareth Southgate’s compelling journey from his penalty miss in Euro ’96 to lauded England manager, leading a team with a clear collective purpose. This story – echoed by players, fans and media alike – has cut through the noise and engaged the public in a way that most business leaders and politicians can only dream of. Whatever the score in the semi-final, the result is that belief and pride in the England team have been restored after two decades of hurt.
So, what can organisations learn from all this? I think it boils down to one core theme: the power of a clear and honest narrative. Because such narratives demand a shared sense of purpose; a purpose nurtured by the tone from the top of an organisation (or football team), reinforced by the individuals within it, and understood by people outside. If you talked to anyone in the England squad today, I suspect they’d be able to articulate the team’s story – why they’re doing what they’re doing, their togetherness, their personal ambitions – with genuine passion. By communicating a strong and consistent narrative based on a clear purpose, the England manager has forged a community of people who are bought into driving the organisation forward, engaging a broader community of advocates in the process.
Storytelling is nothing new. It’s as old as time itself – from the ancient oral tradition to today’s social media. But what is new, in today’s connected and web-enabled world, is that it can feel like the communication of clear messages at an organisational level is being hampered by a blizzard of data, a digital noise that can mask what the data actually means. Instead of an abundance of data, we crave true stories that engage our emotions and connect us with the underlying ethos of people and organisations. When President John F Kennedy visited NASA headquarters in 1961, he introduced himself to a janitor and asked him what he did. His reply? “I’m helping to put a man on the moon.” The janitor understood NASA’s purpose and his part in turning it into reality, just as each member of the England squad does today.
Demonstrating this type of understanding through honest, engaging stories is what builds communities – and trust. Amid today’s fake news and information overload, organisations have to work ever harder to build and sustain authentic relationships. For those enlightened leaders who appreciate the importance of trust, transparency and social impact, storytelling is a vital tool. Like Southgate, they use it to build and engage communities around the essence of the organisations they lead, sharing a narrative that goes far beyond the annual performance figures. A narrative that touches the core of the organisation around which all other activity happens, and which is far more memorable than any spreadsheet or annual report.
For me, the message is clear. Authentic and consistent narratives that capture the essence of an organisation over time will ultimately lift it towards long-term success. Whatever happens tonight, the story of England’s renaissance has captured our hearts and minds. And our trust.