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What's Your Story? How Personal Narratives Impact Leadership

Everyone has a success story and a failure story. Which is in your mind when you're making a big decision?

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Each of us has a life story. In fact, we have several stories. We have a "success story." This is a story that we normally tell in job interviews, sales pitches or describe in our biography or resume. It's the story that our family tells to brag about us. It's a narrative that describes about our accomplishments, triumphs and terrific qualities.

We also have another story. This one doesn't get told very often, if at all. It is a "failure story." This one is also frequently present in our heads. It is the story we fear people might be telling about us. It's a story that begins with, "I'm not good at x, y or z. I can't do x, y or z. I always fail at x, y or z." It is usually based on life experiences where we failed, were rejected, got fired or simply screwed up. It could relate to a childhood experience when you felt awkward or even abandoned, were embarrassed in front of classmates or told you weren't good enough by a parent or a teacher.

I am not trying to play psychiatrist, but you know that these narratives are lurking in your mind. I bring them up because they can profoundly impact your leadership.

You need to be aware of them. You can start to increase your awareness by writing them down-- first, your success narrative then your self-doubt narrative. Most people don't fully realize the extent to which these narratives are influencing them until they push themselves to write them down.

The next step is to think about which narrative is present when you are making a critical decision, or are under severe pressure or stress. Think about how your failure narrative may be holding you back from making important decisions, improving your leadership style, delegating responsibilities and generally being a better leader.

I recently spoke with an executive who was struggling to coach his subordinates. He quietly stewed about their failings. This repressed annoyance manifested itself in his moods and limited his ability to build his team. "I just hate direct confrontation," he explained. Why? He thought about this for several weeks and realized that every time he was going to give constructive feedback, he thought about a time in his youth when he was embarrassed by a public chewing out he received from his football coach. It made him shy away from coaching others.

Over the years, he convinced himself that, "I'm lousy at confronting subordinates and giving them constructive coaching." He decided to face this self-doubt narrative by pushing himself to give more constructive coaching and feedback to subordinates. He reported months later that, to his surprise, he was actually pretty good at it! He believed that the development of this skill helped him feel less frustrated, delegate more effectively and improve his ability to build his leadership team. He became a much better executive by facing this issue.

Most of us are not fully aware of our failure narratives--until we push ourselves to write them down. You can't simply ignore these stories but you CAN make sure you don't become a prisoner of them. Start by becoming more aware of the stories rattling around in your head and the impact they might be having on your actions as a leader.

Last updated: Jan 19, 2012

ROBERT S. KAPLAN | Harvard Business School

Rob Kaplan is a Professor of Management Practice at Harvard and author of What to Ask the Person in the Mirror: Critical Questions for Becoming a More Effective Leader and Reaching Your Potential.




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