Kerry Patterson is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Accountability, Influencer, and Change Anything.
In September of 1970, I found myself in Yorktown, Virginia where 320 other recent college grads and I would be shaped into the Coast Guard’s latest version of officers and (according to the brochure) gentlemen. To be honest, I was scared to death about being shaped into anything. I had been warned that highly muscled, sadistic instructors would do their best to humiliate, degrade, defile, and otherwise turn me into a whimpering shell of a human being. After all, what better way to prepare young people for their first leadership jobs?
That first evening, when I met one of the officers who would actually be training us, I drew a completely different conclusion about our upcoming training. Larry Peterson, the officer on duty the night we arrived, invited me and a couple of other greenies over to his dining table where we ate fried chicken, told jokes, and talked about our dreams and aspirations. Larry even pulled out a photo of his wife and tiny children. I still remember how cute his kids were. They had button noses.
That evening as I settled into my quarters, Cleo Theopolis, a fellow officer candidate from Brooklyn, enthusiastically chatted about what we would soon be experiencing. Obviously the warnings both of us had been given had been wrong. We weren’t going to be insulted, threatened, and abused—this was Coast Guard training, not Marine training. Our experience would be more like scout camp—only with real guns and boats. As I dozed off that evening I envisioned myself standing on the prow of a Coast Guard cutter shouting smart-sounding nautical orders while tanned young men hoisted sails and shouted, “Aye-aye Captain!”
The next morning as my classmates and I meandered out to a place that looked very much like a parking lot covered with blood stains, I was surprised to see that Larry—the charming fellow who had shared fried chicken with me the night before—was now coming at me at a dead run. So startled was I by his approach that I actually looked over my shoulder to see if someone nearby was drowning. What else could fill him with such a sense of urgency? Only, as Larry drew closer, I noticed that he looked as if he was feeling more anger, maybe event hate, than urgency.
It turns out that the proud father of button-nosed kids wasn’t about to save a life; he was about to lay into me like a wolverine on a bunny. Sensing that I was soon to be severely punished for doing something that I didn’t know was wrong, I tried to figure out what military-like thing I should be doing. Finally I did what I had seen in every John Wayne war movie: I saluted the guy.
Big mistake. It turns out in the Coast Guard you don’t salute if you’re not in uniform, and even then you only salute if you’re “under cover”—which is code for wearing a hat. Since I was still in my civvies, Larry cum Freddy Krueger decided that I needed to be properly motivated to not salute when my head was bare by having me do push-ups until I, and several people around me, wished we were dead.
From this point on, conditions only worsened. Mostly we marched in formation in the sweltering heat of Virginia until there was a sign that we had marched long enough. Here was the sign: We would march until one person actually passed out from heat exhaustion. Kerplunk the body would sound as it hit the cement. Klankity klank an M1 rifle would clatter as it crashed to the ground.
Fortunately, the unconscious trainee never lay there very long. Soon, white-clad medical trainees would schlep the unconscious officer candidate to the infirmary while the rest of us “took a break” by lying on our backs with our arms and legs extended skyward and flailing wildly—doing our best to imitate a dying cockroach. Apparently this whimsical bit of play acting would help prepare us for many of the important leadership challenges we would soon face.
Finally, four hours into the nightmare, we took a break. After right-flanking and left-flanking our away around the base until we had reached our destination next to a large brick building, the other thirty members of my platoon and I stood in line and waited for a chance to receive “free government inoculations.” Ah, the perks just never stopped coming.
As I stood there wondering if maybe I had made a poor choice in signing up with this lot of nautical sadists, I heard a familiar sound.
Apparently the guy standing behind me was trying to get my attention. Should I turn around and talk to him? Heck no. It was probably another trap. If I turned around it was a pretty good bet that one of Satan’s henchmen would shout, “Mr. Patterson! Don’t you know that turning your head while standing in line is a violation of the Geneva Convention and is punishable by death?!”
So I didn’t move a muscle. A minute passed and I heard another “Pssst!” Then another and another. Eventually I noticed that the hissing had a thick Brooklyn accent. It had to be Cleo Theopolis, the guy from the evening before—the guy who had chatted with me about how fun the training was going to be. He wanted to say something to me.
I couldn’t ignore my new friend, so I threw caution to the wind and craned my head in his direction. Officer Candidate Theopolis looked horrible. He was a good forty pounds overweight so the torture we had just endured had almost done him in. His face was ashen gray, his entire body quivered, and he sported underarm sweat marks that reached the top of his socks. Then Cleo muttered something I couldn’t quite hear so I turned completely around and asked him to repeat himself.
With a twinkle in his eye and a Brooklyn accent you could cut with a knife, Cleo said, “Da jam-ba-ree is ova.”
Those words caught me so by surprise that I laughed out loud. It cost me another fifty push-ups, but I laughed out loud. The jamboree was most certainly over. Our dreams of passing fanciful summer evenings listening to officers tell salty tales of the fun-filled times that lay ahead had been utterly crushed. This wasn’t going to be scout camp with boats; it was going to be hell on earth.
I first told this story to a group of land-locked automobile executives a decade later. These captains of industry were noodling over the recent decline in automobile sales. It was the early 1980s and prognosticators still weren’t sure if the recent loss of customers to Japanese competitors had simply been an anomaly and the good old days would soon return, or if the sad decay in market share was a sign of imminent disaster.
This was a real question at the time because for the previous two decades automobile manufactures had enjoyed the luxury of selling just about anything they could weld together. “If we build it, they will buy it!” had been the motto. Now consumers seemed so concerned about quality that they were willing to buy foreign-made products to get what they wanted. But was this a passing fad or was it sign of things to come?
Believing that business was indeed going to get worse unless American quality and productivity improved, I told the group of auto executives this Coast Guard story—just to get to the punch line—“Da jam-ba-ree is ova!” As far as Detroit was concerned, the wonderful bygone days of “If you build it, they will buy it” were indeed over. American manufacturers were in for an extended battle and it was imperative that these executives and everyone who worked for them understood their challenge. Sure enough, it wasn’t long until the earthy phrase, “Da jam-ba-ree is ova” became the new watch cry. The four-word epigram transformed into a rallying call. We now had a springboard for launching change.
This silly expression worked because the story had worked. Which brings me to the point of today’s Kerrying On. I decided to tell this Coast Guard tale because several people have e-mailed me recently, commenting on the power of the stories I had included in my last two articles. Each contained a fairly detailed story, a metaphor, and a brief message. Several readers pointed out that it was the story that made the whole thing work.
I mention this because stories don’t get much attention in today’s world of management education, and they should. Terse expressions, bulleted lists, and Powerpoint slides, while brief and to the point, can never carry the punch of a well-told story. Stories are not only more believable than stark statements of opinion or fact but they also provide insight into the story teller’s character. Told well, stories provide both the intellectual and emotional Velcro required to help us connect to the other person as a living, breathing, vulnerable—and ultimately likeable—human being.
Nevertheless, you’ll probably never find a story-telling class taught in an MBA program, and leaders will continue to give speeches and pep talks that are bereft of the very details that would make their points both believable and interesting. Parents can also make better use of stories. For instance, preaching to your teenager about the evils of smoking is likely to be far less effective than telling the story about the time you visited the local cancer ward and watched a woman puff on a cigarette through a hole in her neck.
Some people have an intuitive sense for the power of stories. I’ll never forget the time I watched an executive fall under verbal attack in an all-hands meeting as an employee accused him of cutting and running. The senior leader had just announced that he would be taking an extended leave at a time when the company was in financial trouble. When the employees questioned the leader’s loyalty, rather than becoming defensive or shrugging off the accusation, the leader shared that he too was worried about the company’s stability. Then he broke from a hundred years of corporate tradition and talked human being to human being. He explained that he was also concerned that he and his son had been drifting apart. Consequently he had decided to take time away from work to travel with his boy as a way of reconnecting before it was too late.
Instead of giving the buttoned-down, corporate version of the importance of finding work/life balance, he told a highly personal and enlightening story. By the end everyone understood exactly why he had made his choice and nobody questioned his loyalty.
Stories can do that.