Tag Archives: Wright Brothers


T Big Fish“Given a choice between trivial material brilliantly told and profound material badly told, an audience will always choose the trivial told brilliantly.”  Robert McKee.  With that quote, Esther Choy, founder of LEADERSHIP STORY LAB (tm), goes on to reveal her secrets to great storytelling in business.

I’m at Northwestern, surrounded by fellow Kellogg grads and feel privileged to be here.  One never stops learning, and Kellogg never stops offering opportunities to do just that.  I’m a storywriter, not a storyteller so this workshop shows both promise and challenge for me.

Leadership Story Lab

In preparation for the class, we all view a video about innovation and entrepreneurship, the subject of a previous article.  I watch the video twice and take notes.  Amazing the way two wildly differing speakers like Sinek and Gingrich can come to identical conclusions about a specific topic:  “Why do people succeed at what they do?”  Both speakers use the Wright Brothers as an example.  I find these talks inspiring and this evening I will again meet an inspirational speaker–this time a humble one.

Esther Choy

Esther Choy

Quietly, almost shyly, Esther Choy points out you don’t have to be a superhero to tell a great story.  She talks about mining, refining, and telling.  Tonight, she explains that “mining” is all about getting at the “why” and converting it to key words.  The key words become metaphors.  She says that on average, we use metaphor every 25 words without even knowing it.  She gently takes us through a practical example, lists a few sample questions, then splits us into pairs.

And it works!  All fifty of us immediately tell or facilitate a story—I mean everybody.  We switch places and the result is just as startling.  This is powerful stuff!

She introduces us to another exercise.  This time she wants us to talk about something we are passionate about, so she directs us to our hobbies.  And sure enough, nobody has any problem talking at length about that.  She actually needs to keep us to a time limit.

My hobby is fishing.  After telling a fish story, we identify five keywords: Challenge, Environment, Patience, Collaboration, and Satisfaction.

Now she’s issuing a challenge:  Tell a story about a business experience.  She instructs us to use the keywords just generated from our hobby.  And like before, everybody is suddenly able to tell stories!

My story is about entrepreneurship.  I’ll break it down into the five keywords we identified from my hobby.

Big Fish


Early in my career, my company found itself in need of a radical new product.  The president called together the entire engineering staff, described the result he needed, and asked for an all-out effort to develop the new technology.  He asked us to push the limits in unimaginable ways.

I found out later that not one of the engineers took up the challenge.  Nobody.  Zip.  At the time I didn’t know why.

The president personally showed up at my office door one day and talked to me about it.  “John,” he said, “I want you to do this.”

Now, I have not yet explained my position.  My training was as an artist.  I was a wet-behind-the-ears kid who joined the company sales force.  I made a lousy salesman.  My presence at the meeting was purely as an observer.   So I argued my lack of credentials.

But he then said a curious thing:  “If you don’t do it, John, nobody will.”  That inspired me to try.  So I baited my hook and cast my line in the water.


Fishing takes place in a creative environment, usually with no competition or hurry.  It’s enjoyable, even if you get no bites.  It’s okay to be non-productive.  It represents both freedom and peace.  It turns out that R&D can be a lot like fishing.  Because everybody else refused to try, I had in my hands a project with no real competition but myself.  I was not only allowed but expected to let my mind run free and that was pure joy.  Like fishing, I could try the various lures in the tackle box and if those didn’t work, make my own.  Even my budget had an open end.

As it turned out, all the creative principles I learned in art school translated directly to research and development.  And the technology hurdle?  I crawled around inside these units and learned all about them.  Back at my office, I doodled on scratch paper.  One dumb idea after another.  That led to a concept, design drawings, and finally a prototype.


In fishing, you either keep using the same lure till it works or keep trying new lures till you find one that works.  It’s trial and error.  So it is with R&D.  I spent weeks struggling to come up with a viable concept.  The hurdles turned out to be significant.

This device needed to be cheap to manufacture and easy to install.  What else is new?  But it needed strength and accuracy to do its job well.  It had to withstand a highly corrosive environment, a constant 400 degrees, and frequent fires.  It had to do all that in close proximity to a 40,000-volt electrical source and yet not draw an arc.

This particular application needed to be perfect.  If the first installation failed, the company could get wiped out.  It was a bet-the-farm project, but that was a big secret.  Nobody but the owners and me knew the risks involved.

Every time I thought I had something that showed promise, I looked for alternatives.  Lots of alternatives.  Meanwhile, the sales department was already busy selling my product—even though it was little more than a glimmer in my mind.

But I finally drew up the plans for the first prototype.  We hired a shop to assemble it.  I flew it and two tradesmen to a jobsite in the company plane.  We installed the thing ourselves.

It worked.

But it became immediately obvious to me that my thinking had been two-dimensional.  Certain weaknesses remained and a far better solution waited.  That night at the restaurant, I sketched the new plan on a paper napkin.  That’s right—just like all those stories you hear.  And I got the usual response from those two experienced tradesmen.  “No, that won’t work.”  I was brought up knowing that opportunity lurks wherever you hear those words.  To me, it was like a red flag to a bull.

I remember flying back in IFR conditions in my single-engine plane.  I couldn’t see the ground, but I could see the new design as clear as if it already existed.  When I reached the office, I committed it to an assembly drawing and had it built.  I drew up plans for a miniature unit so I could install prototypes right on the premises.  The prototypes required tweaking.  A lot of tweaking.  I learned to use tools I’d never used before.

Meanwhile, the president approached me and ordered me to release the design to sales.  Now, you’ll recall that I stated that if it wasn’t perfect, the very first installation would certainly bankrupt the company.  I turned him down flat.  Where did I get the power to do that to the president of the company?  Knowledge is power.  I kept at it and refused to release it until I knew it was right.  As it turned out, that took two more months.  A fisherman must have patience.


When I’m fishing, I don’t want to run the boat.  I just want to cast.  I prefer to fish with somebody who knows the lake.  I get so wrapped up in my fishing that I don’t even know where on the lake I am at any given time.  If I had to find the way home, I’d be lost.

I built a great team out men from the trades.  Boilermakers.  Pipefitters.  A kid in the back room that I could see needed to move on to bigger things.  These guys didn’t believe in the dingus we worked so hard on.  They worked for me because they believed that I believed.  And because they believed me, they were willing to do anything I asked.  We brainstormed.  We bent metal together.  We shared beers.  We failed and cursed and tried again.  I never received an ounce of discouragement from this group of brilliant guys till the first prototype worked.  They were so eager to launch it, and yes, they were the ones who resisted the big change at the end—the sketch on the table napkin.

You never know where the big fish are hiding.  When I released the final design and companies started buying it, we faced serious struggles in quality control and cost containment.  A purchasing agent—a guy not even on my team—came to me with the solution.  He discovered a vendor in the slums of Chicago that could make the thing to the tolerances I needed.  They could do it consistently.  They could do it for 1/4 the price of our other suppliers.  That guy transformed a technical success into a financial success.


Fishing can mean a trophy or meat on table.  Either represents the satisfaction of a primal urge.

When this project started, I had no expectation whatsoever of successfully launching the boat.  Certainly not landing a trophy fish.  But because a leader inspired me, I tried.

And as a result, I wound up in charge of that engineering department and won seven patents in my own name.  That one product and its subsequent variations became the flagship of our company—a company that I bought into at the bottom.  And for four years we grew exponentially, orchestrated a successful exit, and ultimately became part of GE.

So I did indeed put meat on my family table.  As the saying goes, “If you don’t get your line wet, you won’t catch any fish.”

It’s since been pointed out that my story talks about three distinct groups of people:

  • As a new minority shareholder, I had as much to win or lose as the president and other owners.  My house–everything I owned vs. a chance to grow a company.  High stakes, high reward, total freedom of movement and a chance to create something new.  None of the employees had a glimmer of the risk involved–only the owners.  If the employees knew that, they would have found steady work elsewhere.
  • The team I cobbled together caught my vision.  They risked nothing but they believed in why we were doing it.  They bought in heart and soul and participated without any other expectation.
  • The engineers that refused to pick up the challenge feared personal failure, looking bad to their peers, damaging their careers–nothing more.  There was little upside for them.  Perhaps a small raise?

MY TAKEAWAY – People seldom create on a paycheck. It requires taking on risk, an entrepreneurial mindset and self sacrifice.  People need much deeper reasons to do that.  They need to believe in what they are doing.  They need to catch the vision.

MEANWHILE, BACK TO THE MEETING – I look at my story partner in surprise.  Did that narrative just pop out of me?  Thank you Esther Choy.  May you continue to rack up success after success with your Leadership Story Labs.  Thank you for codifying the elements of storytelling and making the process seem so easy.

Find Esther Choy at http://leadershipstorylab.com/





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Comments and re-posts are welcomed and encouraged. This is not investment advice – do your own due diligence. I cannot guarantee accuracy but I give you my best.

Copyright © 2012 John Jonelis – All Rights Reserved.


Filed under Kellogg, Leadership Story Lab, Northwestern

STORY – A Three Part Series

Newt on the Wright BrothersJohn Jonelis

What do Newt Gingrich, Simon Sinek & Esther Choy have in common? 

In the first installment, Newt Gingrich treats us to an illuminating and inspiring story about entrepreneurship.  That’s right, a Story. Then in the same article you’ll see a riveting TED video by Simon Sinek, who makes exactly the same point with exactly the same Story but from a completely different perspective.  Part 2 shows how Esther Choy teaches Story to business execs.  In part 3, I tell a Story as a public speaker and end up playing the role of Walter Mitty – not a pretty sight.

We meet Gingrich at a little airport around the corner from my office and crowd together in a beautiful hangar with modern and vintage airplanes.  I stand, surrounded by press photographers.  The secret service accosts me twice (I must look suspicious) but I seem to get along with these guys and they don’t throw me out on my ear. 

I’ve transcribed Newt’s story as I heard it, in his quiet, plain-spoken language.


Making a Point

Using Story – jaj

VERBATIM – Speaker Gingrich:

“This is a great example of American ingenuity and inventiveness.  You can imagine we land a lot, which also means we take off a lot—I always say the Wright Brothers succeeded again.

If you look back here at these wonderful planes,” he turns to indicate a vintage Stearman and Piper Cub, “they represent the evolution of American invention.

I can see he’s got the crowd’s attention.  He goes on:  “The Wright Brothers were two bicycle mechanics in Dayton Ohio who set out to discover how to fly.  Now, being bicycle mechanics back then was a relatively high-end job.  But they spent time.  They studied birds.  They built their own wind tunnel.  And they spent years.  And they knew something really important that bureaucrats don’t seem to get.  THEY DIDN’T KNOW HOW TO FLY—SO EVERYTHING THEY WERE DOING WAS AN EXPERIMENT.

Vintage Stearman and Piper Cub

Vintage Stearman and Piper Cub – jaj

“One thing the US Government did to help them:  When they wrote the weather service they said, where is the best place in the United States to get an updraft—so you have a continuous wind coming up?  Because that makes it easier for the airplane to get lift.  Turns out to be Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, which around 1900 is a really empty, barren place.

“And so to get there from Dayton they have to take a train.  So every summer they load the train with extra wood.  Now, the reason they’re taking extra wood is THEY KNOW THEY DON’T KNOW HOW TO FLY.

“They go down.  They get up in the morning.  They live very inexpensively.  They have no government grants.  They haven’t applied for anything.  This is all on their own money.  And so they live very frugally in a little shack.  They get up in the morning, fix coffee.  They go out and they crash.  And they stop and try to figure out what went wrong.  They fix the plane and they try again.  And they crash.


Newt tells the story of the Wright Brothers while in an aircraft hangar – jaj

“Callista and I were very fortunate.  We were at Orville Wright’s home a couple weeks ago.  The curator said to us: The best estimate is that they had 500 experiments that failed.  And you can imagine the congressional hearings…”

The crowd breaks into laughter.

“…because frankly, the modern political governmental system—and I’m going to use a very strong word—is just plain stupid.”

A man in the crowd blurts out: ‘That’s right.’  And face it—everybody knows it’s true.  But Newt takes a lot of heat for comments like that.  It’s not PC.  It’s the reason so many hate him.  And it’s the reason many find him so appealing at a personal level.  I recall Tom Clancy’s portrayal of his hero Jack Ryan when he ascends to the White House.  In that novel, his advisors cringe when he speaks because he doesn’t follow the teleprompter and the things he says seem politically wrong.  Then Clancy reveals the reaction of political leaders around the world.  For example, the Indian Prime Minister thinks he shows weakness but the Japanese say, ‘He is Samurai.’

The Press

The Press – jaj

Newt goes on:  “And I’ve been trying to figure out for the last several months how to get this across clearly to the American people.  You need visionaries.  Without vision, the people perish.  You need somebody who understands that you get to these aircraft by starting.  And you start somewhere with something that doesn’t look very big and isn’t very effective.

“The Wright Brothers keep trying and on December 17th, 1903 they crash four times.  The fifth time, they fly for 53 seconds.  The first powered flight in human history.  Two Americans from Ohio in North Carolina.

“By the way, the first flight was shorter than the wingspan of a Boing 747 and slow enough that the one brother ran along next to the wing of the plane to make sure it didn’t flip over and kill his brother.”

That draws a lot of mirth from the audience.

Newt raises his voice.  “Now here’s what makes this a miracle.  Because they’ve now discovered the principle, by 1907 they fly around the island of Manhattan and one and one-half million people see an airplane for the first time.  Three and a half years—that’s how fast they changed—BECAUSE THEY’D BROKEN THROUGH.”

He taps the podium with a finger.  “Here’s what makes it a fascinating story: The Wright Brothers knew that they had to build a very light engine because they had to build a very light plane.  And so they actually invented an engine.  They had a number of patents.  And these were very smart people working very hard.  This is their hobby—this is not how they’re earning a living.

“By the way, the estimate by the curator at Orville Wright’s house is that their total spending was $500.  Now, that’s back when money was a lot more valuable than it is today, so let’s say they spent a half a million—but in them-year-dollars they spent $500.

Crowded Hangar

Crowded Hangar – jaj

“The Smithsonian—the greatest scientific center in the United States at that time—gave a $50,000 grant.  The Smithsonian had really smart scientists who didn’t know the number-one thing that the Wright Brothers knew.  THE WRIGHT BROTHERS KNEW THEY DIDN’T KNOW HOW TO FLY.  THE SMITHSONIAN THOUGHT THEY DID.

“And so the Smithsonian went out to Germans for metallurgy and built a really powerful engine.  Now the problem with a very powerful engine is that it’s heavy.  And that means that you have to have a real heavy airplane.  And they didn’t want to go all the way to Kitty Hawk.  They were in Washington DC.  It was very inconvenient to go to Kitty Hawk.  So they tried to find a new innovative way to get wind speed.  And they invented something we still use—the catapult.  Exactly like the nuclear powered aircraft carrier.

“Now there’s a problem because if you’re gonna have a catapult on a boat, you’re gonna launch over water.  So they decided they’d launch over the Potomac.

“Now there’s a double problem:  If you land in water, the impact of the water will break the plane up.  Furthermore, the current of the river will break the plane up.  And when it gets to the bottom and you try to lift it, the process of lifting it will break the plane up.  So you won’t be able to figure out what didn’t work because by the time you get the plane back, nothing will work.

“But they’re very confident because they’re very smart and they have a $50,000 grant and they’ve got lots of degrees.  So they go out and actually invite the press to their very first effort.  Now remember, the Wright Brothers have failed 499 times, but the Smithsonian is so cocky, they’re convinced they’re gonna fly the first time.  And exactly what most of you—I can tell by the look on your faces, you know what’s coming, right?  They get up in the morning; the sun burns the mist off the river.  They get the engine started.  They launch the catapult.  The plane goes straight down the length of the boat and straight into the river.”

The crowd erupts.

“Now they’ve invited the press so you can imagine the press coverage:




Newt gets quiet again.  “A little bit later, the Wright Brothers fly for the first time.  It’s covered by one Associated Press reporter in a real small story.  The Smithsonian is so angry that these guys who don’t have any degrees—they don’t have any government grants—they don’t get any money from the Congress—and they’ve invented flying?  Their relationship is so chilly that the Wright Brothers will not give them the original plane for 37 years.”

The audience busts out in laughter and Newt is grinning.  “It’s now at the Air and Space Museum in Washington.”

He pauses.


Newt tells a story  – jaj

“Here’s why I’m telling you this story,” he gestures around the hangar, “because these planes just inspired it.  I want to get back to this innovation point ’cause this is what nobody in Washington and nobody in the elite media seems to get.  The great need in America is for a visionary political leader who understands science and technology applied with conservative principles of constitutional government.  Liberating the American people to discover and invent the future allows us to become more prosperous, more productive, more successful, and safer than any possible bureaucratic system!  And that’s just a fact!” 

The crowd bursts into deafening applause.

“…the Wright Brothers, Thomas Edison, Henry Ford—these people invented the modern world without bureaucracy!”

Newt waits for the crowd to calm down.

“In that setting, let me tell you about innovation in energy.  Over the last decade, new systems have been developed that enable us to get oil and gas out of rock we couldn’t get oil and gas out of.  Now, with natural gas, if you asked in 2000, they’d have said we have a 7-year supply and we’re gonna have to import liquefied natural gas from the Middle East.  With the new breakthroughs and new innovation, we now have a 125 year supply, and we’re about to start exporting liquefied natural gas to China. …natural gas will add 600,000 jobs in the next decade.

“Now it turns out that the same capabilities apply to oil in North Dakota, where it’s on private land…has led to the following development:  Fifteen years ago, we thought we had 150 million barrels of recoverable oil in North Dakota.  Up until the middle of last week, I said we now had discovered something like 4 billion barrels of recoverable oil.  Now we believe we have something on the order of 24 billion barrels of recoverable oil.

“Here’s the real kicker.  They believe that with two more generations of technology, there are 500 billion barrels of oil.  They’re very deep, so we don’t currently have the technology to get ‘em.

“I’m describing North Dakota.”

He pauses again and I think about the magnitude of those numbers—in a single state.

Newt raises his voice.  “They talk about releasing the Strategic Petroleum Reserve and this is nonsense.  We have two strategic petroleum reserves in the Unites States.  One is the ingenuity of the American people and the other is called Alaska!”  The crowd breaks into applause. 

After the pandemonium subsides, he shifts gears.

“By the way, in North Dakota—for those of you who care about the economy—their current unemployment rate is 3.5%.” 

His speech continues to build on that story and highlight specific political objectives.  That’s a subject for a different journal than this one.  You can find that in any newspaper–they stress politics and only politics.  My goal here is to bring out the broader insights about entrepreneurship and demonstrate his use of STORY.

After he concludes his remarks, Newt and his wife, Callista greet the visitors.  They each pose with me for a personal photo.  Nice.  I hang around and talk politics with friends.


Associated Press photographer – jaj

A reporter from the Northwest Herald interviews me at length and I give him everything I can.  A sweet schoolteacher proudly tells the reporter that she taught my son and I feel mellow and happy.  That March 16th newspaper article sticks to the political side of the speech and uses only a few of my comments.  You can find it at http://www.nwherald.com/2012/03/15/gingrich-talks-gas-prices-jobs-at-lith-rally/ar6mc4u/?page=1 

And I’m struck by the bold frankness of this candidate.  Not your typical politician.  I can see why he makes so many people angry.  He’s highly intelligent.  He says what he believes—bold and clear.  And whatever your political leanings, whether you like him or not—admit it—you admire that in a man. 

In his simple story he’s made everybody in this airplane hangar understand what really makes entrepreneurship and this country work.  I know a lot of venture capitalists and I respect what they do, but who is that other candidate that trumpets speculation as if it were macroeconomic wisdom?  Today’s story brings out deeper, more fundamental truths than that.  I’m left with a very specific and uplifting view of what is possible—within our reach if we can muster the will to grab it.  And I heard all that in an aircraft hangar, in the suburbs of Chicago, the new, growing center for thought leadership.

And I find this job has it’s perks.

Newt and Callista Gingrich with John Jonelis

Newt and Callista Gingrich with John Jonelis




Comments on the Gingrich article started to get shrill until one turned me onto this:  I’ve appended a TED video of thought leader Simon Sinek that makes exactly the same point about the Wright Brother’s  but comes at it from an entirely different persepective.  In this video, he makes the same concepts stick with Dr. Martin Luther King and Apple Computer.  The video is absolutely riveting.   Kick back and enjoy!

Simon Sinek is the author of “Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action,”  He writes for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, Business Week and others.  He joined the Rand Corporation in 2010.


View TED video–Simon Sinek – How Great Leaders Inspire Action


Simon Sinek






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Comments and re-posts are welcomed and encouraged. This is not investment advice – do your own due diligence. I cannot guarantee accuracy but I give you my best.

© 2012 John Jonelis – All Rights Reserved.


Filed under Entrepreneurship and Politics