The Virtual Storyteller

Recently my organization was in Africa presenting “The Mandela Architecture” to the Open Society Foundation. After the presentation, a gentleman approached my team and thanked us for delivering such a moving and inspiring program. He went on to inform us that he had traveled to China with Nelson Mandela in 1999, assisting the South African leader with his scheduled meetings with president Jiang Zemin and premier Zhu Rongji in Beijing. He told us that on the morning of the very first meeting with President Zemin, the Chinese leader barely greeted Mandela, looking decidedly unhappy and behaving somewhat less than gracious. When Mandela inquired as to the cause of President Zemin’s displeasure, the Chinese leader did not respond. At that moment, an aide approached Mandela, and whispered something in the South African leader’s ear. Mandela quickly rose from his seat, excused himself, and left the room. When he returned ten minutes later, he was greeted with smiles and warmth from the Chinese president, and the meeting proceeded in glorious international friendship.

So…what happened? Why was the Chinese leader initially so upset?

Mandela had made his own bed.

A tradition from childhood, no matter where he stayed – hotel, guest house, prison or palace, Nelson Mandela always, always, made his own bed. Unaware of Chinese cultural customs, he had no idea that he was insulting his host by doing so. And so, in order to right this cultural wrong, the South African leader immediately returned to his room, messed up the bed, wrinkled a pillow-case or two, and rejoined his host.

Quick, pleasant little story, right? Limited value, limited consequences, firestorm averted. Except that if we look a little deeper into the story, if we become virtual storytellers and expand that moment in time into three dimensions, we can see the value that Nelson Mandela placed upon the nuances of other cultures. Understanding immediately that his Chinese host placed massive importance on caring for important guests, Mandela took immediate, massive action HIMSELF, by returning to his room and deconstructing his bed. That seemingly unimportant action is what paved the way for diplomacy between the two nations.

When executives and managers can expand the dimensions of the stories they tell, if they can become virtual storytellers, they draw the listener into both the nuances of the story and the actions required by the situation contained within the story. This is a technique that Leadership Masters has employed, and taught, for over thirty years. The art of virtual storytelling.

Storytelling is one of the most powerful drivers of legacy within the human experience. If we can learn to expand and deepen the boundaries of our storytelling, as the man from Open Society shows us, if we can teach ourselves to become virtual storytellers, we can then leverage the imaginations and emotions of the listener, teach deep and valuable lessons, and change the world, one human story at a time.


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