Leaders often tell themselves stories that shape the way they think and lead, such as, “Everything is always a battle around here.” For better or for worse, our stories shape what we notice and how we interpret it. They inform our decision making and behavior. If, for instance, you see your workplace as a battlefield, you expect hostility. You’re primed to attack and defend. Often, these stories don’t serve us well. There may come a time when you need to shift your guiding story to one that enables you to pursue new goals or do things differently. The first step is to identify and examine the stories you tell yourself and others. The next step is to consider how those stories affect you and your team. Any leader can begin to develop this powerful skill by learning to recognize the stories they live by, examining their effects, and refining them to emphasize empowering elements. The rewards of doing so include an increased sense of humanity, coherence, and liberation.
Human beings crave coherence. We long to be true to ourselves and to act in a way that’s consistent with what we believe and value. We want to live and work authentically. This quest for coherence is hardwired; psychologists often refer to human beings as “meaning-making machines.” Our brains create coherence by knitting together our internal experience and what we observe in our environment, through an automatic process of narration that explains why we and others do what we do. As we repeat the resulting stories to ourselves (often unconsciously), they become scripts and routines that guide our actions. And instead of recognizing our stories for the constructions they are, we may mistakenly interpret them as immutable truths, as “the way things are.”
We’ve encountered countless stories among our leadership development and coaching clients that shape the way they think and lead, such as, “Everything is always a battle around here.” For better or for worse, our stories shape what we notice and how we interpret it. They inform our decision making and behavior. If, for instance, you see your workplace as a battlefield, you expect hostility. You’re primed to attack and defend. You may assume that casualties are inevitable. You may misinterpret people’s intentions and overlook opportunities to collaborate. There may come a time when you need to shift your guiding story to one that enables you to pursue new goals or do things differently.
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Such was the case with Chris, a management consultant facing a health and career crisis. He’d joined a top strategy consulting firm straight out of business school and internalized the “alpha male” narrative that embodied his firm’s focus on toughness, competition, and an insatiable appetite for growth. This story had facilitated his ascent up the firm’s career ladder. A decade later, however, he was dangerously unhealthy and disengaged from his work. The story, once motivating, now trapped him in a state of suffering. Unsure of what to do, he sought coaching.
The first step to authoring liberating stories is to identify and examine the stories you tell yourself and others. This helps you understand what you stand for and why you act and react the way you do. Identify a personal or collective challenge you’re facing. What is the basic story you tell yourself about this issue? Chris’s challenge was that he was burned out and he no longer found his work meaningful. The long hours, travel requirements, and high demands of his work were taking a serious toll on his physical and mental health. According to the logic of his guiding alpha male story, he should have been able to overcome any challenge through force of will and effort, always prioritizing the success of the firm.
Once you’ve unearthed a story and dusted it off, the next step is to consider how it affects you. Is it constraining or liberating? Your physical state can provide clues. When Chris considered his suffering in light of his and his colleagues’ standards for limitless stamina, his stomach felt as though it had been punched. What does your story enable you to create? Chris’s story didn’t allow any space for self-care, different ways of working, or alternative definitions of success; these would be signs of weakness. The only pathway it offered was to buckle down and work harder. He realized that there was a disconnect between what he wanted — to restore his health and find greater meaning in his work — and the narrative that justified the way that he and his fellow consultants thought and behaved.
Our stories are rarely created in isolation; they involve our relationships with others. Therefore, working with the interpersonal aspects of our stories is an essential step toward authoring stories that support our desired development. Chris and his colleagues had been socialized to accept the alpha male story when they joined the firm. In organizations, shared narratives function as control mechanisms that tell employees what to value and how to behave. Chris felt indebted to the firm and to the boss who had invested a great deal in his career. His loyalty and self-conception as a reliable high performer made it difficult for him to envision rejecting the dominant narrative by making a choice that contradicted what others expected of him.
If you find that one of your guiding stories limits you, the next step is to consider what you’d like to change and how your story would need to shift to help you achieve the transition. Chris yearned to adopt a healthier lifestyle, find a new sense of purpose at work, and build stronger relationships with his family members. Making this change required choosing which elements of his story to bring forward and which to let go of. Chris reaffirmed his commitment to high performance and continuous learning, and to using his strong analytical, communication, and leadership skills. Retaining these narrative elements provided a solid foundation for his new story. He added a commitment to doing meaningful work that had a positive social impact. He decided to let go of the parts of his story that equated professional commitment with working at an unsustainable intensity.
Chris pursued options for the next step in his career: either a customized role at his firm or a leadership role at a nonprofit. Ultimately, he decided that the nonprofit role was most consistent with his new “health and fulfillment” story. Chris worried about how others in his firm would react to his decision to leave. His new story represented a departure from — and was seemingly incoherent with — the old alpha male narrative. His boss initially rejected the explanation he offered for his resignation, saying, “You just need a little time off.”
In coaching, Chris reflected on other life stories that had shaped his identity. For example, his immigrant parents had always placed great value on family closeness; like them, Chris believed that the family as a unit was far more important than any organization. This provided a root system to support the development of his new career narrative. It strengthened his conviction to define himself in his own terms and enabled him to disentangle himself from the shared alpha male narrative. When Chris told his new story with confidence, it helped his boss and others to see him in a new light and understand that his decision sprang from deeply held values.
Once we realize that our behavior stems from stories we construct and repeat until they seem fixed in stone, we become more capable of authoring liberating stories. Reconstituting our stories so that they help us move in the direction we want to go is a process of choice and intentional sense-making. Any leader can begin to develop this powerful skill by learning to recognize the stories you live by — individually and collectively as a team or organization — examining their effects, and refining them to emphasize empowering elements. The rewards of doing so include an increased sense of humanity, coherence, and liberation.
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