A leader in an autorickshaw!

Early in my career, working as a management trainee with Cadbury’s in Thane, life was good. Although I was in a factory with shifts, I did not mind the shop-floor mainly because it was chocolates that I was supervising! It did get a bit boring and routine at times, which is why any high-profile visitor to the factory was a big thing for us. One such day, we were all turned out nicely waiting to welcome our senior vice president to the factory. His visit was delayed and then we heard the story – the car which was sent to the station could not find him and our SVP took an autorickshaw to make his way to the factory! This story spread like wildfire and before long, everyone in the factory right up to the junior level workers were talking about it. 

What is fascinating is that story spread far and wide, to the Head office and offices globally, even beyond the company and I have heard people talk about it for years afterwards. What intrigues me to this day, is the amazing power of such simple storytelling. What is about such small incidents that go ‘viral’ and do wonders for organizations to convey their culture and unique identity, whereas huge sums of money spent on corporate branding and communicate seldom have that level of impact. 

While storytelling is powerful and there is science behind it, what makes these stories spread so far and wide and that too by word-of-mouth? A recent article on leadership by Harvard Business review namely, “Followers Don’t See Their Leaders as Real People” by Nathan Washburn and Benjamin Galvin, has some a very interesting insight into this. According to them, people in companies view their senior leaders as more of mental images and less as people. While these leaders may be real people to only those they interact with such as their peer group and their secretaries, but to the larger group of people outside their immediate circle, they are more imaginary than real. Employees form a mental picture of their leader based on emails, tweets, videos and town-hall speeches etc. The mental picture gets more solidified with other tidbits received mostly in the form of stories as was the case with this SVP taking an autorickshaw. 

While listening to these stories, people look for moments of honesty and sincerity in them. And because these stories come from informal channels such as friends and colleagues who are perceived to be unbiased, there is a high level of trustworthiness which could be lacking in formal channels. In other words, it is the word-of-mouth transmission itself that gives it credibility. As these stories spread “they take on a life of their own”. 

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