Magic Johnson, Peter Guber and Business Stories

We all know the power of stories in business. We know too that it’s the heroes who give stories power. The hero may be a person, a brand, a company, or it may be the listener.  When the story and the hero are strong, it resonates with the audience.

Peter Guber and Magic Johnson

In his book “Tell to Win” Peter Guber tells the story of a hero stepping up.  It was Earvin Johnson’s first season with the Lakers.  They had made it to the NBA finals when the legendary Kareem Abdul-Jabbar sprained his ankle and was out for the final 2 games.

Nineteen-year old Johnson stepped up and told the despondent team: “Kareem isn’t here.  I’ll be Kareem.”  He sat in Kareem’s seat on the team plane, played Kareem’s position during practice, and went on to play “the greatest game ever played by a rookie in the NBA.”  In the process, he became Magic Johnson.

The hero of this story is Johnson, of course; but it’s also the listener, anyone who imagines him or herself stepping forward with conviction and assurance.  This story lets everyone in the audience think of how: “I’ll be Kareem.”

My Business Story

The story I used most as a manager I borrowed from Anne Lamott’s priceless book, “Bird by Bird.”

Her brother has procrastinated on a huge school project, a paper on, as I recall, birds of North America.  The night before the due date, he found himself at the dining room table in tears, surrounded by reference materials, not knowing where to start.  Their father sat down with him and said: “Take it bird by bird, son, bird by bird.”

This story got my teams – many positions, many companies, different industries — through tough deadlines, the stress of layoffs and other corporate upheavals, and all kinds of not knowing where to start.

What I love particularly about this little story is that–just like Guber’s story about Magic Johnson–it makes the listener–the team–the hero.  Everyone can start somewhere, taking it bird by bird.

Your Business Story

There are lots of great resources around for improving your story, whether it’s your interview story, your consultant story, or the story of your company or brand.  Here are a few I like:

Who is the hero of the story you tell to prospects and clients? I would love to hear it, in a paragraph or two.


4 replies
  1. Andrea Howe
    Andrea Howe says:

    Sandy, thank you for my new phrase: “bird by bird”! It’s a lot shorter and easier to say than “eat the elephant a bite at a time.” And it’s a great maxim for how to tackle anything that seems daunting. Speaking of, back to my email inbox …

  2. Sims Wyeth
    Sims Wyeth says:

    I love and respect our current obsession with story–with narrative, but I think we must remember that we also need “rational” discourse along with the “nar-rational.”

    In other words, professionals need to reason as well as to tell stories. As you and I know, sameness is the enemy of the speaker, which is a phrase I learned from Patricia Fripp.

    We need facts, opinions based on a reasoned interpretation of those facts, and stories to help make the interpretation more vivid and memorable.

    I also think that history tends to swing like a pendulum between a need for story and a need for close analysis and reasoning. At this point in time, we’re all looking for a unified field theory of life, culture, the universe–whatever– and since science has debunked just about every story we’ve ever told ourselves, we are a little over-heated about the need for story.

    Don’t get me wrong. I love stories, I love telling them, I collect them in my LRB (my Little Red Book), but I also know that we need data as well as stories. Having spent some time in the hallways and meeting rooms of the FDA, I’ve seen eyes roll when some well-meaning advocate tells a story about a patient to emotionalize the data.

    In some places, stories engender the willing suspension of disbelief, but in others, they cause skepticism to rise up and slap the story down as statistically irrelevant.


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  1. […] tell the lessons of leading with trust in a vivid and memorable way. They help us make sense of what it means to trust and be trusted. Stories appeal to the heart as well as the head, they […]

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