42

What’s the Story? The Expression of Company Culture

In the 2013 movie “42” about Jackie Robinson, easily one of the best-known ball players in history, there is a good scene just after Jackie (Chadwick Boseman) breaks a bat in frustration and pent up anger. General Manager Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford) tells Jackie a story about a young white kid pretending to be his favorite ball player, pretending to be Jackie. In the movie, Branch intends this story to be a balm for all of the abuse Jackie bears as the first African-American major league baseball player to break the color barrier. Jackie asks Branch why he is doing this, why did he put a black player in what had been an all-white game. Branch answers with another story, ending with saying that he can’t abide that there be something unfair in the game that he loves.

It’s a great movie.

Rachel Robinson, Jackie’s widow, and their children worked for over 30 years to get it made. After she saw it she said she was relieved and excited by how the film portrayed that period of their life. According to Hollywood vs. History many things in the movie are indeed factually true and held up by historical evidence.

However, that scene? Is it true?

Well . . . Technically, it never happened.

The racial slurs hurled at Jackie by Phillies manager Ben Chapman and the tense photo op between the two after are based in fact, but Robinson never fell apart in a tunnel behind the Dodgers dugout, and he never smashed his bat against a wall breaking it into pieces with Branch Rickey standing there watching. Thus, he was never consoled by Branch, either.

But actor Chadwick Boseman told a Reuter’s writer what he was doing was portraying Jackie as “a man and not an idea.” He explained, “At some point he had to break, and the fact that Rachel Robinson didn’t fight us to take (the scene) out (of the film), to me proves that it is true.”

That fictional scene helps tell a true story.

That exact moment may never have happened, Jackie might not have broken his bat, Rickey may not have told that story, but in his autobiography Jackie Robinson wrote, “There were times after I had bowed to humiliation like shaking hands with Chapman, when deep depression and speculation as to whether it was all worthwhile would seize me,” and according to Branch Rickey’s own words quoted by The Washington Post, “Chapman did more than anybody to unite the Dodgers. . . . When he poured out that string of unconscionable abuse, he solidified and unified 30 men.”

To have an identity, any person or group of people must have a story.

Organizations also need stories. Good or bad, fact or fiction, the story needs to make a meaningful connection.

At the core of understanding an organization’s culture and shaping that culture is crafting a story that holds up to that test. Is it true the way great literature is true? Is it true the way those family stories we tell over and over are true – even if, in the telling the stories, they take on a life of their own with colorful details we can’t prove?

If the essence of an organization is culture, an important expression of culture is story.

How do you tell yours?