Leaders in every arena need a personal and coherent story that describes their views on what leadership is and what leaders do.
You might argue that you know it when you see it. Sure, that’s possible. But that kind of intuitive leadership leaves you without adequate tools to deepen your own practice or to communicate your approach to others.
Over a decade ago, as Director of Training for the Massachusetts Department of Disability Services, I was asked to help design several long-term leadership programs for people working in the developmental disability system. Each series had a steering group that met for months to design their program.
Imagine having the opportunity to sit around a table with a group of esteemed colleagues and talk at length about our philosophies of leadership and how we would help develop people working in the system. As a passionate student of leadership, it was a great learning opportunity for me.
Over time, I crafted a personal leadership story that I've shared with hundreds of people as a way to stimulate them to create their own. As I talk with new and more seasoned leaders, I’ve become convinced that being able to tell a coherent story is critically important regardless of how much experience you have.
For newer leaders…
Your personal leadership story will help you decide who to follow and who not to follow. These decisions have a big impact on the rest of your leadership career. Having a personal leadership story also builds confidence in your own approach and makes it less likely that you will get caught up in comparing yourself (often unfavorably) with others.
Having a personal and coherent story is like a navigation system that that guides you in working through complex challenges. It helps you make decisions that are consistent with who you are as a leader. It also helps you evaluate the quality of your own leadership and that of others according to your criteria.
Toward the end of your leadership journey…
Succession becomes a consideration. Who will carry on this work? Will they have the capability? Having a personal and coherent leadership story helps you teach the people who will succeed you and model your behavior for them. Noel Tichy describes this as a teachable point of view. Even if it’s something you never communicate explicitly, it’s always available to share and can add substance to day-to-day conversations.
You may already have such a coherent story but it helps to refine it from time to time and to share with colleagues. Here are several questions to use as a starting point:
- To whom to you look for leadership?
- What do these people do that makes them a leader?
- How would you define leadership in one or two sentences?
Even better than doing this alone is to get together with a group of people you respect and have a conversation with them about these questions.
If you’re interested in learning more about my leadership story, please check out my book.