The Stories We Tell

My first reaction upon viewing Martin Scorsese’s new film, The Wolf of Wall Street, was how closely it resembled Goodfellas, the director’s masterful account of mob informant Henry Hill’s life in organized crime.  Like that historical snapshot of the American Dream colorfully run off the rails, the new film tracks the wanton greed and excessive personal behaviors of Jordan Belfort (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) during the 1990s.  Belfort made tens of millions of dollars selling “penny stocks” and manipulating the stock market through his firm, Stratton Oakmont, before being convicted of securities fraud and money laundering.
While the Goodfellas parallel, in particular, urges Scorsese’s current production to be viewed as a cautionary tale of unbridled Capitalism, what else the film says about “Wall Street” or contemporary business and markets – what more specific stories it may be telling about them – is less clearcut.  In a characteristically incisive New York Times column, Joe Nocera asks exactly that question about the film’s larger message regarding business.  Commenting on Scorsese’s relentless preoccupation with his protagonists’ sexual obsessions and drug use (rather than, say, the specifics of Belfort’s fraudulent trading activities), Nocera concludes that, “to use Stratton Oakmont to represent Wall Street doesn’t begin to get at Wall Street’s sins.”    
Yet Nocera’s question touches on the more fundamental matter of how we tell meaningful stories either about specific businesses or business activities.  Typically, of course, as in the film’s preoccupation with the dissipated indulgences of DiCaprio’s Belfort, we tend to focus on individual leaders and their actions.  Consider a few of the prevailing narratives of business today: the visionary entrepreneur, the rapacious exploiter, or the small businessman at the heart of the economy.  Some corporations do acquire a collective identity that shapes their stories – Enron as the hubristic “smartest guys in the room” or Goldman Sachs as a “great vampire squid” – but they are exceptions. 
In Hollywood and, arguably, the wider popular imagination alike, there’s a further need to simplify and dramatize the activities of business like stock trading.  At one point in The Wolf of Wall Street’s occasional voiceover, in fact, DiCaprio’s Belfort begins to describe the specifics of his trading activities only to acknowledge they don’t really matter to the audience and stops.  Moreover, any connection in the film between Stratton Oakmont’s actual dealings in the 1990’s and the ethics of big Wall Street firms’ early trafficking of Collateralized Debt Obligations (CDOs) becomes speculative, at best, as the film’s story increasingly dwells on Belfort’s own spiraling out of control.  The complexity of such activities and any ethical or legal claims to be made about them, much like the operations of other financial entities like hedge funds or private equity firms, make them difficult if not impossible to render meaningfully in dramatic stories.  It should give us pause in thinking about how we characterize the activities, and differentiators, of our own businesses in the stories we tell of them.
Formal business education regularly addresses the challenge of telling business stories.  The case method thus often requires that firms, their constituent units and leaders, be analyzed closely.  Cases can obviously be structured in different ways, but the most typical approaches rely on carefully drawn narratives: decision-making cases confront the protagonist (and students) with a decision freighted with the complexity of preceding events, for example, while best practice cases present the emergence of those practices through a particular sequence of decisions and events.  Harvard Business cases often go so far as to intentionally scramble the elements of business narratives in order for students to have to make sense of them.  Dexterous re-construction of the full story becomes the touchstone for analysis and learning – while also modeling the valuable skill of producing coherent stories from the disparate facts and other pieces of information found in everyday life.
More broadly, the stories of business organizations that circulate externally cannot but help shape the wider understanding of those organizations (regardless of their accuracy).  Marketers in this way rely on narratives to construct and differentiate the status of company (or its constituent product) brands.  As media and entertainment mogul Peter Guber makes clear in his bestselling Tell to Win, the value of stories is the “emotional transportation” they offer customers or clients.  That “transportation” may lead to very different ends, of escape or transformation or even-self discovery, but it is ultimately borne on the wings of compelling stories that touch our hearts as customers, partners, or collaborators.
Internal to businesses, narratives, what some call “organizational scripts,” can spell out the distinctive and locally appropriate behaviors to be performed in various situations.  Some of these are “origin stories,” of founders’ decisions or critical events, while others capture the defining ways the business organizations manage change, solve problems or otherwise collectively behave.  Still other stories are aspirational and define the organization according to the future it envisions (for example, in Google’s case, having all the world’s information organized).  In fact, the most influential organizational stories are often those that describe where individual workers want to go together and how they aim to get there. 
At the center of such scripting and storytelling are leaders.  In their Animal Spirits, which argues that humans are hard-wired to organize information and experience into narratives, Nobel Laureates George Akerlof and Robert J. Shiller noted that, “Great leaders are foremost creators of stories.”  Creators, yes, but also evangelists, translators, exemplars and finally guardians of the organizational DNA organized into and relayed through stories.
Like all genetic influences, however, the core elements of given stories of organizations and business activities only go so far in shaping their eventual impact.  Ever-changing environmental dynamics, say, of shifting markets, require that stories be continually refined.  In his conclusion to The Leader’s Guide to Storytelling, Stephen Denning makes the crucial point that narrative elements and techniques should ultimately serve as the basis of connection and communication with employees and customers.  Rather than being self-contained and complete, in other words, stories should convey essential truths about the business they describe while still having rough edges and opening out to continuing interaction.  Although that doesn’t necessarily work in Hollywood’s scripts and productions, such openness and adaptability in meaningful storytelling about organizations and business activities are among the paramount responsibilities – and most powerful opportunities – of real leadership.

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