But that left our team with a problem in putting the book together. As we went through the 3,000 pages of interview transcripts, I worried that we were going to find a lot of interesting anecdotes and nothing more. But finally, the insight jumped out at us: An individual’s leadership is defined by his or her life story. In the 125 interviews we conducted, each person kept going back to their life stories as defining for them. From those life stories, you could see the clear link to their passions.
Their leadership may have gone off in different directions before their aspirations really crystallized for them. Ellen Breyer, the head of the Hazelden Foundation, the leading organization for research on and treatment of chemical dependency, is an example of this. Ellen was a student radical in the 1960s. She marched against the Vietnam War, did voter registration among the poor, and was a civil rights worker. The Nixon administration put her on its enemies list when she was 20 or 21 years old and pulled her student loans.
Unable to pay for graduate school, she got married, got into business, and rose to director of corporate marketing at Godiva. But that never impassioned her the way her activism had.
When her youngest son left for college and she realized that she was the same age that her father had been when he died of alcoholism, she became traumatized. So she took a sabbatical, and during this period, she realized that she was much more passionate about her nonprofit activities — including her work on the board of Hazelden — than her for-profit career. So she quit her job and became interim CEO of Hazelden (the previous chief executive had been terminated). She performed so well that eventually she convinced the board to make her permanent. She was able to connect back to those early activities and bring huge passion to her work. You can see that her life story was formative.
S+B: Everyone has a life story, but that doesn’t make everyone a leader. Help us understand how people can use their personal narratives to shape their leadership.
GEORGE: John Barth wrote, “The story of your life is not your life. It is your story.” It means that the important thing is not the actual facts of your life. How does Oprah Winfrey define her story? Her demons had haunted her for years. Until she was 36, she defined herself as a bad girl. She had been raped as a young girl and then as a teenager had become sexually promiscuous and had gotten pregnant. She believed she was responsible for all that trouble.
Her personal narrative and her career totally changed the day that she interviewed Truddi Chase, a writer with multiple personality disorder, who had been sexually abused as a child. Oprah says she was overcome with emotion as Chase’s story triggered a cascade of memories. “That was the first day I recognized that I was not to blame,” she said. That moment was her crucible. She had an epiphany, and reframed her narrative to say, “Maybe I wasn’t a bad girl.” From there she found her mission, to deliver the message that “You’re responsible for your life. You don’t have to let people take advantage of you, physically or otherwise. You can see yourself as a victim, like I did, or you can overcome that and use your experience to help others.”
My wife, Penny George, was in her 50s when it happened to her. Her mother had taught her that “girls are not leaders. In fact, if you were a leader, you might embarrass the family.” So in rebellion, Penny became a great independent professional, a consulting psychologist, and an executive evaluation team builder. After she got her doctorate in her early 50s, she was setting up her own practice, and was very excited about her work. One day, she picked up a message on her answering machine: “Mrs. George, you have breast cancer. Please call a surgeon.”