As part of his research on the effectiveness of storytelling, Paul Smith has personally interviewed over 250 CEOs, executives, leaders, and salespeople in 25 countries, documenting over 2,000 individual stories. Leveraging those stories and interviews, Paul identified the components of effective storytelling, and developed templates and tools to apply them in practice. His work has been featured in The Wall Street Journal, Inc. Magazine, Time, Forbes, The Washington Post, PR News, and Success Magazine, among others.

Storytelling is a must-have leadership skill, there is an art to knowing what kind of stories great leaders tell, what makes a great story a great story, what the difference is between a sales story and a sales pitch, how long leadership and sales stories should be, and some of the most common mistakes he sees made in business storytelling.

Below is one of the stories from his book Lead with a Story as an example of effective leadership storytelling. It’s about Bob McDonald, former CEO and Chairman of Procter & Gamble, and currently the Secretary of Veterans Affairs in the Obama Administration. It’s a story Bob tells to help the leaders reporting to him to hold themselves accountable for the organizations goals and commit themselves to delivering it, no matter what.

In the fall of 1971, Bob joined the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, New York. Along with the traditional hazing a first-year cadet experiences, Bob learned quickly there were only four acceptable responses when addressed by a superior officer: “Yes, sir”; “No, sir”, “I don’t understand, sir”; and “No excuse, sir”. As Bob explains it, “Imagine I’ve shined my shoes, my trousers are pressed, and I go out to formation. While in line, one of my classmates rushes past and steps in a puddle, splashing mud all over my shoes and trousers. Then an upperclassman walks by and notices. ‘McDonald! Why are you in formation with mud all over your shoes and trousers?’

As a West Point cadet, I go through all four possible answers in my head. ‘Yes, sir’ would just restate the obvious, so that doesn’t seem appropriate. And it would probably get me yelled at even more. I couldn’t say ‘No, sir’ because it was clearly true. I’d get thrown out of the academy for lying. ‘I don’t understand, sir’ would just make me look stupid. As a new cadet I was doing enough of that already. The only answer I had left was the fourth one, and it’s the most powerful one of all—‘No excuse, sir.’ Even though something happened to me that was outside my control, I wasn’t supposed to make any excuses. I was supposed to say, ‘No excuse, sir. It won’t happen again.’ That’s how a West Point cadet takes responsibility, which is an important part of character.”

Bob was reminded of the power of that lesson thirteen years later, when he and his wife, Diane, were discussing what to do about their 6-year-old, Jenny. After repeatedly telling Jenny to clean up her room, they found it hadn’t been done. It was a mess. Being thoughtful parents, they consulted one of the many parenting books on their shelves for advice on how to reprimand a child for an infraction like this. They discussed their options, and even scripted out the conversation they would have with Jenny. With script in hand, they went and found Jenny in her room.

“Jenny, we’d like to talk to you about the condition of your room.” Bob started. But before he could even get to the second sentence of his prepared speech, Jenny looked up at him and with the seriousness of a West Point cadet said, “No excuse, Dad. It won’t happen again.”

Bob and Diane were completely dumbstruck. They stood there in awkward silence, trying to
figure out what to say next. Their script was completely useless now. With seven simple words, Jenny had acknowledged the state of her room, taken responsibility for it, and promised to not let it happen again. Everything their lengthy script was supposed to help them accomplish was already done. There was nothing left to say. They kissed their little girl on the cheek, and left her to play in her room.

Over three decades later, Bob still preaches the value of that lesson. As CEO or head of the VA, one of his primary responsibilities was to set stretching goals and objectives and get every employee committed to deliver them. Truly committing to a goal means that if it isn’t met, you take responsibility for it and promise to get it done. The ‘No excuse, sir’ response is a clear indication of commitment and responsibility. It works as well in the business world as it does in a military academy or in parenting a six-year-old.

And it works for the boss just as much as it does for the subordinate. When the boss hears “No excuse, sir”—however it’s articulated—she can be certain her subordinate is taking responsibility and is still committed to the goal. For the direct report, the disarming “No excuse” response spares him a lengthy reprimand from the boss, just like it spared Jenny.
Today Bob shares these stories of his time at West Point and his daughter, Jenny, with his executives and leaders. It’s his way of teaching them to accept responsibility and build commitment to goals. You can do the same by polishing your storytelling skills.

About the author
Paul Smith, one of the world’s leading experts on organizational storytelling. He’s a keynote speaker, storytelling coach, and author of the books Sell with a Story, Parenting with a Story, and the bestseller Lead with a Story already in its 8th printing and available in 6 language around the world. Paul is also a former consultant at Accenture and former executive and 20-year veteran of The Procter & Gamble Company. You can find out more about Paul on his website, www.leadwithastory.com.

You can attend a live leadership storytelling training with Paul at Executive Insight 16, being held at the Waldorf Hotel in New York City November 10th and 11th.