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  • Jane Porter

What Is Your Leadership Story?

Feb 2020

Have you ever noticed that how a leader shows up is often determined by the stories they tell?

A leader’s stories (or narratives) are very interesting to pay close attention to. There are stories that show up on the outside, through what is said and acted upon. There are stories that live on the inside, that impact what a person is saying to themselves and feeling about themselves. The latter often shows up subtly, through body language, tone and throw away comments.

Whether stories are expressed internally or externally, Linda Graham in her book Bouncing Back (2013) suggests that,

"The stories we keep telling ourselves form memory structures around them and they, not our actual experience in the moment, provide about 80% of the neural instructions upon which we base our actions"

As a coach I’m curious about how coaching approaches and processes bring more consciousness to the memory structures of a leader and their stories. Narrative coaching approaches, when used effectively, can be a powerful approach here.

Simon was a CEO in a large regional organisation. He had engaged a coach to help him deal with what he described as ‘aggressive behaviours’ from some of the board members towards him. Simon demonstrated a high degree of self-awareness, and came to the coaching relationship suggesting that he was contributing to the dynamic, yet he couldn’t quite understand how he was contributing or what to do about it. As the coach listened to Simon, they noticed a story of ‘battle’, Simon was saying he felt like he was always on the ‘attack’. He held stories of wanting to ‘hit them between the eyes’ with the salient points and ‘defend’ his team against bad decisions.

As the coaching progressed, it became apparent that Simon had created a strong story about needing to defend his, and his team’s position, this was showing up in his mindset, and behaviour around the board. When invited to explore this further, he also told a story of being extremely passionate about supporting the underdog, particularly in regional communities, and enjoyed ‘fighting’ for key causes.

Through narrative coaching approaches, Simon was invited to slow down his stories and look at how they were driving his present behaviour and outcomes. He came to understand for himself, that the reality he was living as a leader was only one version of the story, and that to some extent, he was contributing to how the current story was evolving.

Constructionist theory, which is one of the knowledge bases from which narrative coaching has developed, suggests that we are all constructing our worlds differently all of the time, even though we may have access to the same information. The good news here is that anything that is constructed can also be deconstructed and reconstructed.

For Simon, this meant thinking about his role through the story of ‘advocacy’ rather than ‘battle’. Once we change the title of the story many other changes can follow. Through coaching he came to re-author his story of the board, and think about how he could engage them as fellow advocates. This reframe enabled Simon to create new ways of engaging with the board around the common outcomes they were all seeking. 

When thinking about your own leadership narrative, there are five elements to consider according to Botella & Herrero (2000). 

·         The events you include in your story (and also the events you exclude)

·         The main themes around which you organise your story

·         The characters that you regard as significant (and also who you choose to leave out)

·         The voices who are given the airspace in the story

·         The genre of the story e.g., is it a story of success or failure? 

When considering these elements, it’s important to acknowledge that you are both the author of and an actor in your own stories.

Based on the fact that re-authoring takes time and experimentation, take a moment to think about the leadership stories you are creating and living.

·         How well are they working for you?

·         Your team?

·         Your organisation?

·         Your industry? 

“People think that stories are shaped by people. In fact it’s the other way around …”

Terry Pratchett


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