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Tell Your Own Story Before Others Tell It For You

3 min read

We human beings are hard-wired for narrative. In the absence of a story, we will make one up. Tell your story first.

Years ago I was facilitating a training program around leadership presence with participants from different companies all over the country. The program started at 8:30. At 8:35 I had seven out of eight participants, so we began.

At 8:50 the conference room door opened and in rushed number eight.

I knew from my participant list that she was a Vice President at a top-drawer financial services firm in New York City. She was impeccably dressed in a black suit and Prada shoes. She looked like a model playing an executive. And she was on her cell phone.

She stood in the back of the room, speaking tersely to whoever was on the line. The energy in the room shifted to something I would call “tense tolerance” while Pam (not her real name) finished her conversation. When she finally joined us, she sat in her chair looking at her shoes and frowning.

I could pause here in the story to make a teaching point. If you have taken a Leading with Presence workshop, you know that personal stories can hold multiple messages. For example, I could point out that negative energy can be really contagious, or sometimes it’s more important to be present in the moment than to get stuff done.

What I find more interesting, and sobering, is what started to happen within me and within the other participants. We started to make up stories in our heads about this woman. My story was about a stuck-up New Yorker who couldn’t be bothered to be present for a seminar she clearly needed—I assumed that her boss had probably forced her to be here. Judging from the faces of the others when Pam spoke, their stories were no less flattering.

I tried to catch her during a break; she was constantly on her phone and late coming back to the room. My irritation rose.

That afternoon we moved into an exercise wherein participants identify significant moments from their lives that directly forged their leadership styles. This exercise tends to be transformational, as people make connections between who they were as a child and young adult and who they are now as a leader.

When it was Pam’s turn, she described a childhood in poverty, raised by a single mother who had immigrated to America from Vietnam. The one message that Pam’s mother repeated over and over again was “Work is the most important thing you can do. Make sure you can take care of yourself so you don’t end up like me.”

As Pam spoke, you could practically feel the air going out of the room. Our stories about her were deflated. Then new air was pumped in—air that was filled with empathy and curiosity. Pam started to bring her head up in the circle and make eye contact; her participation and energy rose. Opening herself had allowed her to be more present. In turn, the rest of the group opened their body language to Pam; they uncrossed their arms and leaned forward as she spoke.

During the end-of-day debrief, an executive at a government agency captured the teaching point exactly: “It’s very hard to think badly of someone who has opened themselves to you.”

We human beings are hard-wired for narrative. In the absence of a story, we will make one up. Tell your story first.

Set the record straight. Your people will follow you, because as leadership guru Noel Tichy said, leadership is autobiographical: If I don’t know you as a person, how do I know you as a leader?

 

This blog was originally published on March 10, 2011 and was updated August 1, 2017 for accuracy.

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