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Storytelling In The News: #101

NYT: Role of narrative in establishing values in business

March 27, 2004

On March 7, 2004, the New York Times Business Section featured a story about storytelling. It concerned Dr. Srikumar Rao’s course on Creativity and Personal Mastery at Columbia Business School. (I missed the piece when it came out - it has just been pointed out to me.)

Increased interest in values

The New York Times reports that in the wake of the Enron and Parmalat scandals, the business schools at Harvard and Columbia have made ethics courses mandatory for students entering last fall. According Dr Safwan Masari, vice-dean of Colombia Business School, “People are reflecting more profoundly on what it means to be successful.” Although Dr. Rao’s course is not one of the compulsory courses, its overflow enrollments do seem to reflect an increasing interest in values.

Use of narratives to transmit values

Dr. Rao’s course is a forum for self exploration that is meant to help future business leaders define their ethics and their personal goals.

According to the New York Times, Dr. Rao uses stories to make his points. One tale was about someone who continued to give money to a foul-mouthed panhandler because he did not want to stoop to the panhandler's pettiness.

One of the tales that Dr. Rao uses is the following: “There are terrible jerks in the world and there are an unusually large number concentration of them in the workplace. And that means that you do have to make some changes in your behavior, but there is absolutely no need for you to give them power over your happiness.”

More important than telling his own stories, Dr. Rao tries to put his students in touch with their values and their own personal stories by asking them to tell their own stories in personal essays. As an illustration, the New York Times cites one of Dr. Rao’s students, Charles Marcus, 32, who was in charge of sales and marketing at an online business in San Francisco: he was forced to fire people and squeeze clients for higher bill rates. In his essay, Marcus wrote that he woke up one morning in 2000 and wondered whose life this was the was living. He had been “sucked into a greed machine.”

Is storytelling businesslike?

It is progress that the New York Times is talking about storytelling at all, particularly the business section. It's useful that narrative is identified as central to values. This is not the first time that this newspaper has talked about storytelling in this context. On November 19, 2000, Jeffrey Seglin wrote about storytelling in his monthly ethics column. His headline was: storytelling only works if the tales are true. (read the 2000 article)

Yet in another sense, the 2004 article is disturbing. the article treats Dr. Rao’s class – and storytelling – as unbusinesslike – some kind of goofy activity that is not part of the mainstream. It's as if the New York Times equates storytelling with folk tales and people telling fairy stories to children in school.

Apparently we're not yet at the point where the New York Times routinely recognizes narrative as a massive part of the everyday activities of business, particularly the activities of upper management and sales and marketing.

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