< Leaders and Stories 1
Leaders and Stories
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the Next Generation,
Conveying Values, and Shaping Character
A leader's story conveys the lessons of experience--theirs and others.
Its power is that a story wraps the two central facets of leader learning,
character and capability, into a memorable and practical package ripe for
In finding your own stories of where you learned to lead, you might want
to take a large piece of paper and draw a timeline horizontally through the
center. Begin with your earliest remembered childhood days and end with
today--the larger proportion being in the working career years. Then both
above and below that line, record the highs and the lows of your life and
career. What were the events and situations that produced in you the
greatest (or least) energy, the most satisfaction, the most disappointment,
the greatest challenges, the worst mistakes, the best teamwork, a memorable
Use these as a starting point. It is from both the so-called highs and
lows of life and work that we draw lessons and form the basis for stories
that pass on that learning.
An additional way to go about it is to prime the pump using story
"prompts." I have provided 10 basic leader story prompts in the
accompanying box, but add your own.
With some key story ideas in mind, you are ready to start, writing a
few down in the next weeks. It can turn into a lifetime leadership
learning habit of your own learning from experience.
Recording Your Leadership Stories
Stories have a very clear pattern to them that ensures both learning and
interest. The best way to develop stories is, of course, simply to tell them
to someone. There is apparently something in the telling and retelling of
stories, researchers have found, that allows us deeper understanding and a
better memory of the events and the lessons. Telling stories isn't natural
to all of us.
A basic format for stories can be a useful means to take a key
situation from the "highs and lows" or from a prompt and turn it into a
story with lessons for the future. Essentially a story has five parts to
it, normally in the following order.
Use this merely as an outline to
jot down a few thoughts under each component. It's really not necessary to
write it all out. These are connected parts, meant to be told aloud to one
person or to a roomful. Try sharing these with another person, using a tape
recorder, or just telling yourself the story in your head.
What you might want to do is to have several story ideas in mind that you
work on from time to time and keep in a spiral notebook. The purpose here is
not to form the basis for your novel or for writing your memoirs, but to
begin to appreciate with deeper understanding how you as leader have been
shaped by the lessons of life. Once we have a deeper understanding of how we
have learned to lead, two things will happen.
First, you will begin to see that you not only have learned much, but
that you have much to pass on--a leadership legacy if you will.
Second, you will begin to observe events and situations that you encounter
with more of a "leader's eye," a capacity for real insight about what is
being learned and how it relates to other "stories" that form "parables" for
others. This then leads to living out the role of a leader who grows the
next generation: a leader who has a greater commitment and capacity to be a
mentor, coach, teacher, and exemplar.
For many years, Odysseus was away from his young son, Telemachus, as he
fought alongside Achilles at the gates of Troy and then traveled his long
and perilous journey home. He returned to find that Telemachus was now a man
in the best sense. The guardian to whom Odysseus had entrusted his son's
development had done his job well. That older man's name was Mentor.
To be a mentor is to have a significant relationship, often with a
younger person, over a long period of time to help him/her to grow and
mature as a person and as a leader. This is a relationship of trust that is
built by single bricks of time--lunch, racquetball, walks, and hallway
conversations. It is the type of relationship that senior leaders can have
with a few people and can even continue beyond retirement. In fact, not
being a "boss" may enhance the quality of the trust and the openness of the
To be a mentor is to be honest about one's experiences and even failings,
not to be a fount of wisdom. Many patterns of life and leadership challenges
recur. You will find that the lessons of your leadership stories now can be
matched with the challenges of your protégé from time to time as your
relationship grows. Also, simply listening isn't a bad thing to do either.
The two basic mentoring questions are something like these: what are your
priorities? How can I help you?
The essence of mentoring lies in the depth and duration of the relationship.
The essence of coaching revolves around shared experience. The coach is
involved in "the game" with the people s/he is coaching. The coach
intentionally and even strategically challenges others to take on
experiences that will cause them to grow, to develop skills that may be
nascent, and to take risks tempered by coaching questions that allow the
protégé to solve the problem on his/her own. A coach will also help an
aspiring leader to learn by reflecting on what has happened and giving
feedback--good and not so good--and encouragement.
A leader's stories can come into play for a coach in many situations. For
example, almost any planning for a project involves thinking through
possible options--stories convey how similar situations played out in your
own career. Or, perhaps, there has been a parable, distilled from many
stories that you have drawn in leading change or in resolving conflict on a
hard-charging team. What are the parables you have come to rely upon?
The reality of uncertainty, difficulty, and even failure, as well as
perseverance in the face of opposition and setbacks, are the lessons of
experience that can allow others to grow and not give up. Your stories can
help set the stage for both realistic learning and perseverance under
Teachers come in all sizes, but few leaders see themselves as "teachers."
Teaching, they often believe, is a role for trainers, the human resource
folks, consultants, and gurus. Not leaders. Except that impression is simply
dead wrong. The best leaders are not only the best teachers for the next
generation. They are the ones who see that what is needed in the "classroom"
is practical wisdom that embodies the best of theory. They not only see it,
they act on it.
The "best practice" organizations have recognized this. Building on the
principles of how adults learn (experientially, practically focused, reality
based), these organizations design in-house leadership development programs
that maximize this truth by engaging senior leaders as instructors, not
tokens. While human resource development types are needed to provide the
learning background and the administrative framework, the design of the
"curriculum" content is best provided by those in the front lines of
leadership. They simply understand better than most what competencies and
character qualities are needed for the leaders of the future.
As a "teacher" your stories help to enlarge the understanding of
participants. Stories provide an air of reality, and a sense of the nuances
of leadership paradox that no text or clever consultant or trainer can
provide. You will also find participants more willing to listen to practical
wisdom and honest vulnerability, particularly if their learning "curriculum"
is action learning: a real team project with the pressures of time and
Volumes have been written on leading by example. Suffice to say that when a
senior leader turns his calendar around and begins to openly devote more
time to the careers of others as a mentor, coach, and teacher, that bespeaks
a person of character and commitment to others. One who cares about other
people, one who demonstrates a belief in the importance of enhancing the
gifts of people, and one whose focus is on the future—this is a leader who
helps to grow the next generation.
Serving the Future
The leader who takes it upon himself or herself to invest time and energy in
the lives of future leaders is living out what many have called the role of
a servant leader. It is only such a leader who can be an effective and
sought out mentor, wise coach, and respected teacher and one whose example
others will want to follow. This leader doesn't begin by telling stories but
by living them. His or her life is the best story.
As one person told me about a leader who had shaped his life: "He 1eft
his1egacy in the lives of others."
Ray Blunt is currently the Associate Director and Fellow at the
Washington Institute for Faith, Vocation and Culture. For the past ten
years he has served as a leadership consultant and teacher for the
Council for Excellence in Government and the Federal Executive Institute
as well as for several government and non-profit organizations. He spent
35 years in public service in the US Air Force and the US Department of
Veterans Affairs. He is B.J.'s husband of 41 years and the father of two
grown children, and grandfather of five aspiring servant leaders.
- The research for this article is based upon "Leaders Growing Leaders:
Preparing the Next Generation of Senior Executives," under a grant from
PricewaterhouseCoopers Endowment for the Business of Government, May 2000.
- Hal was the name of the computer that ran amok in 2001: A Space
- See Managing Succession and Developing Leadership: Growing the Next
Generation of Public Service Leaders, National Academy of Public
Administration, September 1997.
This article originally appeared in the Spring 2001
issue of The Public Manager.
Reproduced by GovLeaders.org with the publisher's consent.
©2001 The Public Manager.