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.


At the Corner of Assertiveness & Cooperation: Collaboration

© Copyright 2003-2010, Pfaff & Associates. All Rights Reserved.What do we meet at the corner of Assertiveness and Cooperation? The Thomas-Kilmann assessment suggests that it’s Collaboration.

Their assessment,  which is the basis for many others, explores different styles people use when handling conflict. For some of you this work may be familiar, but I only learned of it a few days ago from my sister, a professional mediator. Here is a free version which gives you a quick view of the five areas measured by the Thomas-Kilmann assessment.

It identifies five styles of handling conflict between two people: the Avoider, the Accommodater, the Compromiser, the Competitor and the Collaborator.

These types are arrayed in a graph with Assertiveness (defined as concern for the task, or as "thinks of self") on one axis, and Cooperation (defined as concern for people, or "thinks of others") on the other. In the lowest left hand corner is the Avoider, someone who’d rather not deal with conflict at all, and in the upper right hand corner, the corner where the highest level of Cooperation meets the highest level of Assertiveness, is the Collaborator. (Smack dab in the middle, as you’d expect, is the Compromiser, but we’ll save that for another day.)

What fascinated me about this model is the light it sheds on Collaboration: where its power comes from, and what distinguishes it from Compromise. Certainly, there are situations in which compromise is adequate and even worthwhile. I’d like to go out for dinner, you’d like to stay home. Taken a step further, I’d like not to cook tonight, and you’d like not to get dressed up or spend a lot of money. A compromise on a nearby casual restaurant fits the bill perfectly, and you and I probably don’t need to spend a minute more on a "conflict" like this. But a compromise is always a meeting in the middle, so each gets a little of what they want, and compromise often gets to a gray solution, not really satisfying to anyone but sort of appeasing everyone. In art, it’s mixing a lot of colors to get mud.

Collaboration gets its power because it uses the energy of Assertiveness–ideas and real points of view, championed by people who care–and the energy of Cooperation–a willingness to make things work for all involved. From collaboration comes the best result, the idea or solution which is fashioned from everyone’s input and is better than what any one person could have come up with on her or his own.

And a key point in all of this, a key ingredient in collaboration, is that it starts with conflict, but it doesn’t end there. It takes the energy of the conflict–opposing or differing views, needs and goals–and the attitude of collaboration–the willingness to reach the best solution for all concerned–to get somewhere we’ve never been before, and somewhere we couldn’t go alone.

I’ll close with a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

"A leader isn’t a seeker of consensus, but a molder of consensus."

PS: If you love this kind of self-knowledge quiz, try our Trust Temperament assessment. Far cheaper and more revealing than a therapy session.