Shaping a Better Leadership Story

I often ask people to write their personal leadership story in six words. This condensed leadership memoir forces people to focus hard on either the few key moments that have shaped their leadership or the leadership principles or behaviors they most value. The idea is to get people to surface something deeper, more elemental and distinctive about the way they lead, in the spirit of what author Octavia Butler observed about herself, “Every story I create, creates me. I write to create myself.”

Of course, the brevity of this exercise is frustrating, so we read an article together and then begin writing a longer personal narrative in a few paragraphs. I invite you to try this in a still hour. “Leadership Storytelling,” by Jack Harris and B. Kim Barnes suggests that leaders who tell compelling stories create important messaging about their own pathway to leadership and through them can create a culture of inspiration in their organizations. They advise telling these stories with grace, humor and humility, adding conflict and the highs and lows that brought them to where they are now.

Since childhood, we are nurtured and nourished on stories. This has primed us for the magic of these six words when someone approaches a podium: “Let me tell you a story…” Our ears and eyes come to attention. Because of this, we hear a lot about storytelling in professional development these days, so much that we tend to tune it out instead of integrating it into the way we lead. Despite the research about story-telling and its effectiveness, I’ve noticed that very few lay and professional leaders say anything highly personal when they speak publicly. They hide behind the remoteness of organizational messaging and pre-scripted lines taken straight from a nonprofit’s website. Their words are veiled with jargon and clichés.

We have some ancient guidelines about the significance of story-telling. In Deuteronomy 26, we are told that when we finally arrive at the Promised Land, plant and are about to enjoy our first fruits, we need to bring a sampling of them to the Temple first and tell the story of our people with these individual gifts. The gift basket is for the Temple; the story is for ourselves, a chance to reflect on who we are now that we have a homeland.

“My father was a wandering Aramean, and he went down into Egypt with a few people and lived there and became a great nation, powerful and numerous. But the Egyptians mistreated us and made us suffer, subjecting us to harsh labor. Then we cried out to the Lord, the God of our ancestors, and the Lord heard our voice and saw our misery, toil and oppression. So the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great terror and with signs and wonders. He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey; and now I bring the first fruits of the soil that you, Lord, have given me.” [26:5-10]

Every story is created by what we leave in and what we leave out. That’s true for Deuteronomy, too. And yet this collective story reminds us that details and values matter when telling a story. Each person must travel with a basket of what we’ve labored to do and tell the story of how we arrived. This ritual pre-dates all the research on story-telling by hundreds of years, yet it hasn’t lost its potency.

Find an occasion to tell your Jewish leadership story. Fill it with detail, texture and the richness of human life. Heart-to-heart communication demands that we tell a better, more intimate leadership story.