MCENTIRE JOINT NATIONAL GUARD BASE, S.C. --
My story begins with others.
From a very young age, I have always enjoyed family get-togethers, birthdays, reunions, and holidays. I always enjoyed the opportunity to sit and listen as the ‘seasoned folks’ recounted their life experiences and stories. The narratives from my relatives were at times funny, sad, instructional, but mostly educational. Their stories could be about anything from childhood to all the way up to their 93rd birthday celebration.
My favorite topics included Vietnam, World War II, ‘How to fix it’ and the often embarrassing ‘Should I be doing this?’ As an avid outdoorsman, I would mostly gravitate to the men of the family. Their tales always seemed to be more educational, entertaining and often times farfetched. Sometimes my grandmother would tell a tale or two, usually at the men’s expense. It wasn’t until I got older that I realized the profound influence the many life-long stories had in shaping my world view and personal growth.
On November 22, 1983 I enlisted into the South Carolina Air National Guard and was assigned to the 240th Combat Communication Squadron as an air traffic controller. I was 18 years old and to my surprise and enjoyment the senior enlisted members would often share their own stories. My commander, Lt. Col. William S. Teer, relayed numerous seasoned stories and always held my ear even outside of orders. It’s true. There were many stories told that were unrelated to our missions but there were many more that did directly relate and provide insight on how to do the best job possible the right way. I did not know it at the time but the squadron leadership was utilizing leadership storytelling practices that are now considered highly effective and are currently being taught in many MBA programs and executive leadership courses. But what makes storytelling so important?
According to Pamela B. Rutledge, Director of the Media Psychology Research Center, “Stories are how we think. They are how we make meaning of life. Stories are how we explain how things work, how we make decisions, how we justify those decisions, how we persuade others, how we understand our place in the world, create our identities, define and teach social values.”
It wasn’t until the 2000s that I became aware of the leadership storytelling theory and that was courtesy of the SCANG reading program. Anyone who knows me will say that I can talk their ears off. So this storytelling theory was something I could really get my head around and embrace.
For many years being the control tower chief controller, I would often meet with the 3-level air traffic control trainees to discuss their progress, review various pattern scenarios and most importantly, provide encouragement. At the conclusion of these meetings, I would often share a short story from my own experiences as a way to mentor, build connection and trust. This practice, although I had not realized it, had become so anticipated that the one time I dismissed everyone without an anecdote, I was met abruptly with: “What? No story time with Uncle Danny?” And then everyone erupted in shared laughter.
Storytelling is no longer defined as listening to grandfathers on front porches. It’s a communication skill that can help leaders achieve a variety of organizational, sectional and personal goals. Whether directed at small work groups or entire squadrons, stories can motivate, inspire, reduce conflict and establish mission goals. They can also bring authenticity and clarity.
Esther Choy, President of Leadership Story Lab, said “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” Though I didn’t hear this phrase until later in life, I’ve found it to be true. Narratives shared between teammates, co-workers and leaders have the potential to build character, relationships, and camaraderie. These are all words I live by.
So, I will keep on telling my stories well past my thirty six years of military service and until retirement. Then, I will be the grandfather, sitting on porches, calling people over saying- “Let me tell you about this one time…”