Some heroic exploits go unrecognized because they happen out of view. Southwest Airlines annually recognizes its behind-the-scenes employees in a “Heroes of the Heart” award ceremony. The honor goes to the backstage individual or group that contributes most to Southwest’s unique culture and successful performance. The year following the award, a Southwest aircraft “ies with the winner’s name on its fuselage. A song written for the occasion expresses the value Southwest places on its heroes and heroines whose important work is often hidden:
Heroes come in every shape and size; Adding something very special to others in their lives No one gives you medals and the world won’t know your name But in Southwest’s eyes you’re heroes just the same.
The Twin Towers tragedy reminded Americans of the vital role heroism plays in the human spirit. New York City police of!cers and !re!ghters touched people’s hearts by risking their lives to save others. Many perished as a result. Their sacri!ces reaf!rmed Americans’ spirit and resolve in enduring one of the nation’s most costly tragedies. Every day, less dramatic acts of courage come to light as people go out of their way to help customers or serve communities. NBC’s Nightly News airs a recurring segment recognizing people who “have made a difference.” In 2007, Colin Powell proposed an “Above the Call” citizen award, recognition on par with the Congressional Medal of Honor.
Exploits of heroes and heroines are lodged in our psyches. We call on their examples in times of uncertainty and stress. American POWs in North Vietnamese prisons drew upon
246 Reframing Organizations
– } song ¥1MInria
WEBC12 05/26/2017 2:22:32 Page 247
stories of the courage of Captain Lance Sijan, Admiral James Stockdale, and Colonel Bud Day, who refused to capitulate to Viet Cong captors. “[Their examples] when passed along the clandestine prison communications network . . . helped support the resolve that eventually defeated the enemy’s efforts” (McConnell, 2004, p. 249). During the Bosnian con”ict, the ordeal of Scott O’Grady, a U.S. Air Force !ghter pilot, made headlines. To survive after being shot down, O’Grady drew on the example of Sijan: “His strong will to survive and be free was an inspiration to every pilot I knew” (O’Grady, 1998, p. 83). Although drawn from nightmares of warfare, these examples demonstrate how human models in”uence our decisions and actions. We carry lessons of teachers, parents, and others with us. Their exploits, animated through stories, serve as guides to choices we make in our personal lives and at work.
Stories and Fairy Tales It is said that God made people because he loves stories. “Human life is so bound up in stories that we are desensitized to their weird and witchy power” (Gottschall, 2012, p. 1). Stories, like folk or fairy tales, offer more than entertainment or moral instruction for small children. They grant comfort, reassurance, direction, and hope to people of all ages. They externalize inner con”icts and tensions (Bettelheim, 1977). We tend to dismiss stories as the last resort of people without substance. As an older retiree remarked, “Why, I have a perfect memory. I even remember things that never happened.”We denigrate professors and elders for telling “war stories.” Yet stories convey information, morals, and myths vividly and convincingly (Mitroff and Kilmann, 1975; Denning, 2005; Gottschall, 2012). They perpetu- ate values and keep heroic feats alive. This helps account for the recent proliferation of business books linking stories and leadership (Clark, 2004; Denning, 2004, 2005; Simmons, 2006, 2007; Seely et al., 2004). Barry Lopez captures poetically why stories are signi!cant:
Remember only this one thing, The stories people tell have a way of taking care of them. If stories come to you, care for them. And learn to give them away where they are needed. Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive. That is why we put these stories in each other’s memories. This is how people care for themselves (Lopez, 1998).
Stories are deeply rooted in the human experience. It is through story that we can see into each other’s souls, and apprehend the soul of the organization. The stories that both
Organizational Symbols and Culture 247
WEBC12 05/26/2017 2:22:32 Page 248
individuals and organizations tell about themselves anchor identity and hope. Vough and Caza (2017) note that when individuals experience career setbacks, they do better going forward if they tell a positive story. For example, one manager said about a career setback: “I actually don’t regret . . . [not being promoted], because it helpedme better understand how to navigate the political landscape, to really trust myself, and not allow others’ opinions to in”uence my own sense of self-worth” (p. 203).
Stories are told and retold around camp!res and during family reunions (Clark, 2004). David Armstrong, CEO of Armstrong International, notes that storytelling has played a commanding role in history through the teachings of Jesus, the Buddha, and Mohammed, among many others. It can play an equally potent role in contemporary organizations: “Rules, either in policy manuals or on signs, can be intimidating. But the morals in stories are invariably inviting, fun, and inspiring. Through storytelling our people can know very clearly what the company believes in and what needs to be done” (Armstrong, 1992, p. 6). To Armstrong, storytelling is a simple, timeless, and memorable way to have fun, train newcomers, recognize accomplishments, and spread the word. Denning (2005) puts the functions of stories into eight categories:
• Sparking action
• Communicating who you are
• Communicating who the company is—branding
• Transmitting values
• Fostering collaboration
• Taming the grapevine
• Sharing knowledge
• Leading people into the future
Effective organizations are full of good stories. They often focus on the legendary exploits of corporate heroes. Marriott Hotels founder J. W. Marriott Sr. died many years ago, but his presence lives on. Stories of his unwavering commitment to customer service linger. His aphorism “Take good care of your employees and they’ll take good care of your customers” is still part of Marriott’s philosophy. According to fable, Marriott visited new general managers and took them for a walk around the property. He pointed out broken branches, sidewalk pebbles, and obscure cobwebs. By tour’s end, the new manager had a long to-do list—and, more important, an indelible lesson in what mattered at Marriott.
248 Reframing Organizations
: 3 } Function of stories4
s %É&”now 6
WEBC12 05/26/2017 2:22:32 Page 249
Not all stories center on the founder or chief executive. Ritz-Carlton is famous for the upscale treatment it offers guests. It begins with the Ritz-Carlton credo and service values, reviewed at the daily “lineup” in every property and carried by every employee in a wallet- sized card. (Another hotel chain planned to implement a similar approach but then canceled the initiative to save the cost of the cards.) “My pleasure” is employees’ traditional response to requests, nomatter how demanding or trivial. One hurried guest jumped into a taxi to the airport but left his briefcase on the sidewalk. The doorman retrieved the briefcase, abandoned his post, sped to the airport, and delivered it to the panicked guest. Instead of being !red, the doorman became part of the legends and lore—a living example of the company’s commitment to service (Deal and Jenkins, 1994).
Stories are a key medium for communicating corporate myths. They establish and perpetuate tradition. Recalled and embellished in formal meetings and informal coffee breaks, they convey and buttress an organization’s values and identity to insiders, building loyalty and support. At a company’s annual celebration banquet, a nervous executive serving as the night’s emcee introduced all the VIPs seated at the head dais. As he was completing his obviously compulsory assignment, a younger man stepped up behind him and whispered, “You forgot to mention the chairman.”
A red-faced, “ustered emcee turned to the crowd and apologized, “Oh yes, and of course our esteemed chairman of the board, Dr. Frye. Excuse me, Dr. Frye, my secretary left your name off the list.” Frye turned to his COO: “John, I want that guy !red tomorrow. That’s not the way we do things around here. Honesty and owning your mistakes are a big part of who we are.” The story spread quickly through the cultural network. Point made.
Or take Costco, widely recognized for its low prices and high value. Jim Sinegal, founder and former CEO of Costco, is known as a masterful storyteller constantly spinning yarns that reinforce the value of putting the interests of customers and employees ahead of stockholders:
In 1996 we were selling between $150,000 and $200,000 worth of salmon !llet every week at $5.99 a pound. Then our buyers were able to get an improved product with belly fat, back !ns, and collarbones removed, at a better price. As a result we reduced our retail price to $5.29. So they improved the product and lowered the price. The buyers weren’t !nished with the improvements, though. Next our buyers negotiated for a product with the pin bone out and all of the skin removed, and it was at an even better price, which enabled us to lower our price to $4.99 a pound. Then, because we had continued to grow and had increased our sales volume, we