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How Well Do You Know the Story of You?

Eric McNulty

Eric J. McNulty is the director of research at the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative and writes frequently about leadership and resilience.

 

We all spend a good deal of time polishing our public personas. We pour our professional accomplishments into LinkedIn profiles. Facebook has become a channel for sharing events both momentous and meaningless — a new job, a family vacation, what we had for breakfast. Twitter allows us to engage in stream-of-consciousness commentary on almost anything.

None of these, separately or together, fully tell the important and compelling story of you. Something is missing.

Knowing your story — understanding what makes you you — is essential, and part of who you are is your setbacks and failures. Acknowledging your own missteps, struggles, and pain is necessary to acquire the emotional intelligence central to leadership effectiveness. In particular, empathy for others comes from admitting mistakes. Receiving a promotion may be testament to your talent and hard work, but getting laid off presents a test of your character, adaptive capacity, and resilience. When life stops being easy, you have to dig deep to find your true passion. Executive coach Eddie Erlandson calls this discovering your genius zone, the work you’re so passionate about you’d do it for free — but which you figure out how to get paid for.

In their 2002 book Geeks and Geezers, Warren Bennis and Robert Thomas noted the ability to identify “crucible” moments as something that leaders have in common. These experiences ranged from mega-events such as serving in World War II to highly personal ones like a battle with a life-threatening disease. They identified the capacity for positive adaptation through adversity as the most important skill of the individuals they profiled.

Crucible moments are exactly the events and experiences that do not appear on our social media profiles, CVs, and the other instruments we use to present ourselves to the world. Yet they are the sources of the self-understanding and awareness central to your ability to connect with others — and to motivate them toward a shared goal, persevering to overcome obstacles along the way. The true story of you is the key to why you lead and informs why others are drawn to follow you.

One of the most effective and courageous exercises in exploring the fullness of a personal story that I have witnessed was demonstrated in an executive-education session by my colleague, retired Brig. Gen. Dana Born. Born, who had a successful career in the U.S. Air Force before coming to Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, used a technique taught to her at the Authentic Leadership Institute, with which she is also affiliated. She first introduced herself with a recitation of the high points of her impressive background. Just when people were beginning to think that she was quite full of herself, she stopped. Born then began again, this time using the experiences one doesn’t usually share — the disappointments, failures, pain, and regrets of that career. When she paused, the room was silent. Her point was crystal clear. The true story of you has two equally important parts. Your essence is woven from your good and your bad experiences.

The true story of you is the key to why you lead and informs why others are drawn to follow you.

Recently, I spoke with Washington Speakers Bureau founder Bernie Swain. In his new book, What Made Me Who I Am, he has compiled stories from many of the notable people he came to know through promoting them as lecturers. The story that struck me most was that of Tom Brokaw. The broadcast journalist relates how accomplishments came easily to him early in life, so much so that he “crashed and burned” in college when things became more challenging. Fortunately for Brokaw, he had friends and a mentor, who helped him get up and move forward. He sees the roots of his storied career in the lessons he learned in those difficult days.

“Successful people are aware of themselves,” Swain says. “They have an inner voice and they pay attention to it.” He also notes that such people aren’t inspired to succeed for the sake of success. They are driven to accomplish something. That passion, as he describes it, is often revealed by turning points that many people miss.

Fear of failure can hold you back from embracing your true calling — after all, what happens if you fail at the thing you care about most? But sometimes a setback gives you the ability to follow your inner voice. For me, while writing had long been part of my work, it wasn’t until I was laid off in 2008 that I committed to making it my mainstay. Embracing my passion as the route to overcome that setback has made the last eight years the most meaningful and productive of my career.

As a leader, or one who aspires to lead, you cannot afford to overlook those turning points. Be aware of the benefits of your crucible experiences. Listen to that inner voice and find your passion. Over the long haul, passion often trumps talent, according to the research of psychologist Angela Duckworth.

Pay less attention to the legion of people offering to optimize your online profile for search engines or build your Twitter following. As Swain notes, “When you get overwhelmed with creating an image you can almost forget who you are. Who you are is about where you came from, what you suffered, and what you’ve learned.”

I am not suggesting that you delete your LinkedIn profile, or amend it to say that you were fired for failing to navigate complex organizational politics. I am recommending, however, that you reflect honestly on the omissions from your public narrative so that you can divine the contributions they make to what makes you you.

A daily journal is an excellent vehicle for the regular introspection that leads to greater self-awareness and understanding. Keeping a journal helps you create the time and space to reflect. It also helps you capture the small experiences that can get lost in the daily frenzy of activity, but which may reveal important things about you. Try this simple prompt: What made you happy today?

As a leader, your story is not entirely about you. After all, leadership exists in the relationship between people. Once you have dug deeply into your story, help others delve into theirs. Challenge individuals in ways that help them grow. Offer support, deliver tough love, and ask the hard questions.

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How Well Do You Know the Story of You?