From Russia With Love

January 11, 2011

I’ve been to Moscow now three times in a year and as I look out the window of the airplane making its way to land at SVO airport, I notice something—something inside me has shifted and I feel excitement and a swell of emotion about the countryside below. Moscow is growing on me. Russia is getting under my skin. It’s cold, 25 degrees or so, windy, and snowing. It’s beautiful.

I will be working with Executive MBA students at a top university for the next few days. I find myself thinking of my students’ faces as we take the two hour journey from the airport to the campus. Everything by car takes at least two hours no matter where you go in Russia. It is really a lesson in patience and being present. You cannot get frustrated, you have to be Zen like, make your way slowly to your destination. No one gets excited, no one beeps; there is not a thing to do about it. The drivers are like monks with their ability to play it cool, spending their entire day in traffic looking at the red tail lights of the car in kilometers and kilometers.

Today we are doing an all day workshop on Storytelling. This is my favorite subject. As a hobby, I collect stories from around the world. It gives me comfort to know that we are all connected by stories. It feels appropriate to be looking at stories, both the craft and the delivery, in the dead of winter in Moscow. This is the time of year we do this best; the cold winter outside, sitting around a fire with food, drink and good stories to get us through the harshest season. I say this to the students and the edges of their mouths turn up; their eyes understand. These students took some time to trust me and at first they tested me, needing proof of the impact the work I was delivering would have on them and their professional careers. But now we are connected and I know I have the relationship I need to push them a little further, open them up, challenge them and guide them toward their unique talents.

First, we spend some time defining and understanding the elements of a good story. I then invite them to embark on something fun—telling fairy tales. I ask them “what are some famous tales you remember as a child? What are the Russian folk tales/fairy tales you still know?”  Immediately they begin to shout out and I begin to write. They give me titles I know, or I almost know: The Turnip, Masha and The Three Bears, Axe Soup (a version of Stone Soup in which the soldier has an axe instead), Little Red Riding Hood, The Three Little Pigs. They argue about the plots, the characters, the versions—they dispute with great enthusiasm and urgency—this stuff matters to them, to us, these timeless stories of our youth. I am amazed to learn we shared so many of the same stories in our childhoods, across the world from each other.  

I get them into pairs instructing them to decide on a story, but more importantly to determine what they want to cause in their audience with the story. I have written up on the board potential ideas: to scare, to caution, to teach, to inspire, to entertain, to make the audience curious, to engage. With their minds set and their childlike creativity bubbling up they are becoming actors for a moment, figuring out the best way to tell this tale to accomplish what they want the audience to experience. They get to work and in the end we have all of their stories, complete with narration, characters, place, time, emotions, suspense, beginning, middle and end, creative language, and a great deal of fun and laughter. The students are communicating in ways I’ve never seen in them before, becoming more fully engaged in the message, physically bringing to life the situations, using the space in a new way, finding props from who knows where (someone made a turnip out of building material and a computer mouse and cable) and using their voice, emotions and imaginations to transport us.

We talk about what makes these stories lasting: archetypes, drama, suspense, morals/lessons, easy to repeat, details, repetition, characters, humor, fear, etc. They are recognizing all day long the elements of what makes a good story. More significantly, they are recognizing their innate ability to retain, craft , tell and engage with stories.  

Now we are ready to go mining for their stories. To find the wealth of stories they have personally and professionally that they can use as leaders. This is where their transformation shines through.  They see how stories are relevant and how immensely critical the ability to use stories effectively is for their own leadership growth and development. The fun continues…

 As we take a break and look out on the falling snow outside, I hear their voices talking to each other in their mother tongue, laughter filling the room as they drink coffee and eat fruit and cakes. They are constantly telling each other stories. I watch their faces and I want desperately to help them keep their childlike imaginations going, I want to keep their spirited play wide open for as long as I can.  It is fuel, it is energy, it is a blanket of connection between us, it is the best kind of stuff for the harshest season.

Janice O’Rourke – Senior Coach


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