Reflections on Leadership: Life Stories
The art of telling a good story is a gift shared by many great leaders. Last month my friend and colleague Larry Minnix retired as the leader of LeadingAge after 16 years as CEO. At his retirement celebration, many people referenced his ability to tell a story as one of his many outstanding talents. His southern drawl was an asset as he fashioned stories about seniors and caregivers as real people, with real needs – a departure from the normal Washington, D.C focus on statistics and future projections. Sometimes his stories included farm animals or a cousin named Bubba. Whether the stories were literal or a parable of sorts, he effectively carried the message in his own unique style.
A great story has the potential for reaching people on an intellectual and emotional level. Ed and Steve Sobel, creators of NFL Films expressed it this way, “Tell me a fact, and I will remember. Tell me the truth, and I will believe. But tell me a story, and I’ll hold it in my heart forever.” As I get older, I am not as sure about remembering facts. I have also become a bit more cynical about those who tell me that they are conveying the absolute truth. However, I am completely convinced of the staying power of a story to engage the heart and mind.
The use of stories to drive home a message has a long history. The parables of Jesus are reminders of how a story can etch an eternal truth in the human mind in a way that is nearly indelible. Just mention the subject of a parable, and the lesson comes clearly into view:
- The Good Samaritan – Who is your neighbor, and what is your responsibility for your neighbor’s welfare?
- The Prodigal Son – The power of forgiveness and redemption.
- The Widows Mite – Sacrifice and generosity.
- The Parable of the Talents – Risk taking and accountability.
The list could go on, but you get the picture. Nothing is better at communicating a message than a compelling story.
The value of a great story extends beyond communicating a memorable message. It has been my observation that people are hungry to hear life stories from those who lead them. Leaders have an opportunity to draw people closer to them through self-disclosure. Of course there are boundaries to self-disclosure in terms of details and intensely personal information. But if your life stories are authentic, people will see a leader as a human being with a mixture of faults and strengths. There is comfort in knowing that everyone shares a common humanity, struggling to become the kind of person that they know they should be.
It has been my experience that while every life can be viewed as a single narrative, in reality it is a story that may have several distinct chapters:
- Professional – This can relate to our employment history – but often is a much more inclusive narrative. For many people there are defining moments when he or she experienced a moment of intense clarity – like when an occupational calling becomes obvious. I particularly appreciate a story that begins with “My affection for seniors began at an early age…” It may also include the impact of important mentors who helped to shape us as a leader.
- Values – The values that define a person’s character are often the result of a life experience that reveals, clarifies or strengthens what is believed to be true. My Son Eric describes such a moment when he witnessed the birth of my grandson. Looking at his son for the first time in the hospital he says that “I finally understood my purpose in life. I was born to be a Dad to my children!” This was a revelation to me, as for most of his life he was not enthused about the prospect of being a parent. Anyone who knows Eric would affirm that his priorities in life reflect this expressed value.
- Relationships – Whenever I meet what appears to be a couple in a happy relationship, I am always interested in the story of how they met. The facts of the story are almost always laced with the joy of discovery and how they felt at the start of this important part of their life. Stories of lifelong friendships are also rich with shared experiences that connect them in a powerful way.
- Faith Journey – From a faith perspective, a person’s story is sometimes referred to as their testimony, which can be dramatic and life altering. Perhaps the most famous story of this nature is the Apostle Paul’s conversion on the Damascus road in the book of Acts. Most people do not have such a vivid story to tell, but each story is presented as evidence to support a changed life and hope for the future. Paul constantly repeated his conversion experience throughout his life as his most important life event.
But aside from the obvious communication advantages and personal connections that are fostered by being able to tell a good story, it appears that there are other important benefits that are less obvious. In his book, Return on Character, Fred Kiel connects the ability to tell a coherent life story with the character development that is essential to every leader. He says that “Your life story is the narrative that you tell yourself and others that allows you to make sense of your life experiences, from your earliest memories onward. Your life story is your answer to two key questions: Who am I, and how did I become the person I am.”
Kiel’s research involved interviewing CEO’s, finding that the most important fact was whether or not the leader knew his or her life story, connecting positive and negative life events and how those events shaped their personal development and their self-awareness. They found that the strongest leaders were self-aware because:
“They have spent time reflecting on their life’s journey. They have some understanding of its milestones, how they are connected, and where they continue to lead. They know where they are going, in part because they know where they have been.”
The least principled leaders were more likely to be running blind through their life journey. He found that such leaders “lacked the foundation of supportive relationships, character habits, self-awareness, and mental complexity upon which to build the kind of character driven leadership that reliably contributes to sound decision making and strong sustainable business results.”
It would seem that the presence of a cohesive life story was the key to a leader finding his or her bearings in a world where things constantly change.
Not every leader is blessed with the gift of telling a spellbinding story. But we can all use the power of stories in one way or another to reach others on an intellectual and emotional level. It is even more important to know and understand your own life story and use its lessons in your inner journey as a leader. It may take some effort amid the confusion of daily life, but every leader needs to get his story straight in order to be consistently successful.
About Steve Proctor
Mr. Proctor has enjoyed a long tenure with Presbyterian Senior Living. He joined the organization in 1971 and has since held positions as Registered Nurse, Director of Nursing, Executive Director, and Chief Operating Officer prior to becoming CEO in 1996. Mr. Proctor continues to work each day toward fulfilling his commitment to serve the residents, families and staff of Presbyterian Senior Living, as well as those in need of support outside of our network of retirement communities and senior living locations. He is a past chairman of PANPHA, AAHSA and IAHSA, and former board member of The Nativity School of Harrisburg. He currently is on the board for Forgotten Voices International.
- Connect with Steve Proctor