Knowing When Your Leadership Narrative Needs an Upgrade

Learn how to take ownership and transform your leadership narrative.
Rick Lash and Christine Miners
January 28, 2022

 Excerpted in part and adapted from the forthcoming book Once Upon a Leader: Finding the Story at the Heart of Your Leadership by Rick Lash and Christine Miners. Published by Page Two Books, September 2022. 

We each employ, without our full awareness, an internal narrator that works tirelessly behind the scenes producing stories that help us navigate and make sense of ourselves in the world. Your narrator naturally develops stories around the critical roles you play in life—journalist, physician, mother, competitive tennis player, friend. And a growing body of research also suggests that we develop a core inner narrative that we use to tell ourselves who we are as a leader. This inner story is an essential tool that helps us make sense of events, and provides us with a sense of purpose and direction for the future. It serves as a key source of personal motivation, drive, and action that you continually draw upon to guide your decisions and make meaning of what you do in your leadership role. 

And like a well-worn toboggan run on a hill of freshly fallen snow that gets deeper and faster with each pass, over time our narrator learns to take the path of least resistance, driving us back to an older, outdated story1. It continues to generate stories that were essential for survival back then, but it struggles to create new narratives that can navigate the complex paradoxes of a disruptive adult world where there are no single right answers. And that is especially true when it comes to your leadership. 

Your narrator is the operating system of your mind 

Computers come with software that supports most basic functions like start-up and running applications. At first, the operating system is sufficient to perform the tasks needed, but over time it gets overstretched as the applications become more complex and demanding. The original operating system is no longer sufficient—it can’t recognize or use new data and it gets slower. Minecraft won’t run on Windows 95. Similarly, our internal narrator is often settled on the time period in which it was most active, usually our teens and early 20s. It still continues to operate in that same comfort zone, not able to recognize it is operating in an adult world. 

As a senior leader, what holds you back is often not a lack of skills or knowledge, but a fragmented and patchy leadership narrative that is frozen in time. And you rarely go back to see if it needs revision. 

1 The snowy hill analogy was originally used by Dr. Pascal-Leone to describe how mental tracks get laid down in our brains in Norman Doidge’s book The Brain that Changes Itself (Penguin Books, 2007).

How COVID has damaged your narrator 

The COVID pandemic has been a long grind, creating prolonged stress and uncertainly for everyone. Emerging research is highlighting the impact the pandemic has had on people’s sense of well-being, showing how ongoing stress can cause lasting negative psychological and social effects. But perhaps most overlooked is the impact the pandemic has had on the ability of our internal narrator to generate coherent stories that help us make sense of our selves and our world. Sometimes, especially during periods of prolonged stress as we have all experienced over the past two years, your narrator can go missing in action, and with it your sense of self and purpose. You no longer feel like the hero in your own story. 

Does your leadership narrative need an upgrade? 

How do you know when your leadership narrative needs an upgrade? Here are three typical signs. You may recognize yourself in one of these, or perhaps elements of two or all three. 

Adrift and lost 

“In the middle of the journey of our life I came to myself in a dark wood, where the direct way was lost”, writes the Medieval poet Dante in the opening to his epic poem The Inferno. Entering the middle passage of life, or navigating through it, can come as a challenge for many leaders. The internal leadership story that helped them achieve and succeed in the first half of life isn’t fully working for meeting the challenges they now face. We all grow older, become more aware of our mortality, experience life loss and shift our values. We may feel something is amiss, but finding it difficult to put our finger on it. Perhaps the passion and excitement you once felt for your role or for the organization you serve has been waning or you are feeling less engaged in the work, questioning your purpose. Although you may experience moments of clarity, they are lately less frequent, replaced with a more pervasive sense of loss of direction and perhaps general dissatisfaction. 

Struggling to succeed 

Six months after her promotion to her first enterprise role, Angela, a rising star in her organization, felt overwhelmed and exhausted. Her work environment mirrored the chaos she was feeling – piles of papers everywhere, half scribbled notes littering the floor. “I’m finding it difficult to keep my head above water – I’m fighting so many fires and when I put out one a dozen others flare up. I can’t seem to get people on the same page. I was so excited when I learned I got the promotion, now I can’t even remember why I wanted it.” Recognized as a leading specialist in her field and valued for her ability to solve complex programs and execute major initiatives, Angela was feeling helpless and plagued by a fear of failure. The scope and complexity of the challenges she now faced dwarfed any she had tackled in her previous functional role and she felt like she was failing. All of the strengths that made her successful in her previous roles – her deep expertise, exceptional organizational skills, task focus – were no longer working. Her challenge was not about learning new skills, rather it was letting go of her outdated leadership narrative that was getting in her way and holding her back. 

Someone else is writing your story 

Organizations can provide immediate satisfaction to our deepest needs—to feel special and valued, that the work we do has meaning and purpose, to be connected to others, and provide us with clear direction. We very much seek to be the hero in our own leadership narrative, and organizations provide a ready-made solution to fill those needs. Over time we can slowly hand over our storytelling rights to our organization without our full awareness. 

The attraction is hard to resist. Allowing your organization to write your narrative has short-term benefits, but it also can come at a significant cost. The narratives organizations provide are often fragile and vulnerable to events beyond your control, and your leadership narrative can be easily shattered. Organizations are also stressful environments, with a relentless focus on performance, multiple agendas and competing priorities, all of which can erode your narrator’s ability to construct a coherent story of your experience. And your own narrative capabilities will atrophy over time as you give over your storytelling rights to your organization. Once that ability is gone, it is very difficult to get it back. 

The way forward 

Sometimes that little voice in our head that helps us make sense of our lives seems to go missing in action. Like a symphony conductor who suddenly leaves the podium in mid-performance and is replaced with an amateur, we are left struggling to make the connections between where we have come from, where we are now and how that will propel us to a hopeful future. How do we find our way back? Where do we start on the journey to return to ourselves? 

Too often, superficial and simplistic solutions are offered. Write your personal mission statement. Identify your values. And so, we may dutifully do the exercises, have brief moments of clarity, but more often than not, it quickly fades into memory. Our lives move on, new opportunities present themselves and some measure of balance is restored. For a time. But self-insight alone is insufficient. Those insights must be firmly embedded in the rich, detailed story of yourself as an active agent in your broader leadership narrative.

We have used a practical framework that assists executives in the challenging work of developing their leadership narrative.2 Think of it like building a house or undertaking a major renovation. There are three key phases. 

2 See Bill George’s book True North (Jossey-Bass, 2007). George states, “Successful leadership takes conscious development and requires being true to your life story . . . by reframing their life stories to understand who they are, these leaders unleashed their passions and discovered the purpose of their leadership,” pp. xvii–xviii.

Raymond Sparrow conceptualizes “the self as a narrative project through which individuals interpretively weave a story uniting the disparate events, actions, and motivations of their life experiences—much as novelists enliven their characters through plot”. To make sustained change, leaders must do the hard work of integrating personal insights into a larger narrative that situates the individual as an active agent in a coherent life story. (“Authentic leadership and the narrative self,” The Leadership Quarterly 16 [2005], 419–425)

Phase 1: Prepare

In Phase 1, you collect the materials needed to construct your leadership narrative before you begin to build. Some of those materials will come from mining your life memories. Some will need to be imported from the outside to provide you with an outside-in perspective, helping you appreciate how others see your strengths and the value you have brought through your leadership. Other elements—your inner motives—are more deeply hidden and must be brought to the surface. They are the whales that swim in the deeps of your unconscious, creating ripples that reverberate throughout your leadership narrative. 

Phase 2: Build 

In Phase 2, having prepared all the building materials, it is time to see how they might fit together. It is in this phase that you will be integrating the complex and sometimes conflicting data sources into a coherent, singular leadership narrative. The analogy of building a house breaks down a bit, however. There is no clear blueprint to guide you. Rather, the blueprint starts to emerge from the assembled materials. It is here where your narrator truly gets down to work, sifting through old memories, shining a light on long forgotten events and discovering new meaning, identifying hidden strengths and looking for the strands that connect it all. Patience is key, but the elements of what will become your leadership narrative start to emerge. 

In this phase you will seek to answer three fundamental questions that lie at the heart of your narrative: Where do I come from? What do I bring? What impact do I seek to create? Through all the hard work, what emerges for most is a leadership narrative centered on a very few core themes, but those themes ring deeply true and can be clearly seen as a golden thread weaving throughout your life. The work in this phase will be profoundly transforming, revealing a fundamental truth about your leadership. 

Phase 3: Activate

In Phase 3, you translate your leadership narrative to action. In our work with executives, we frame their leadership narrative as a source that they can draw on in different ways to motivate themselves and inspire others. Here you will learn how to experiment using your leadership narrative in different contexts, sharpening and strengthening it, making it an integral part of your role and life and using it to engage and mobilize others to action. 

Overall, it is the process of developing your leadership narrative that is transforming. Developing your narrative is not like writing a speech, although you may use elements of it when creating a presentation. It is not writing an essay, although you may choose to include parts of it in your communications. Rather, the process of building your leadership narrative is more subtle and harder to get your arms around. Like other executives who have embarked on the challenging but deeply rewarding journey, the end result is more profound than a concrete product. Like them, you will find yourself using your leadership narrative when you suddenly find renewed conviction to express your views at the executive table. You will find yourself using it when making difficult decisions that defy clear answers. And you will use it to find yourself when you’re feeling lost in your leadership, struggling to succeed or discovering the courage to find your own path. 

Are you ready? 

Rick Lash is a Senior Associate at Verity International. With over 30 years of experience working with clients across Canada and internationally, Rick has helped implement leadership and talent development solutions to accelerate learning and improve performance at the individual, team and corporate levels. Recognized and valued for his deep expertise, thoughtfulness and engaging approach, Rick has served as a trusted advisor working with leaders and their teams to build practical talent management solutions. 

Christine Miners is an experienced talent management expert, passionate about making an impact with her customers through keeping it simple, tangible and practical. With more than 20 years of experience leading talent management functions, Christine is energized by working with individual leaders, teams and organizations to broaden their perspective and translate new thinking to actions and plans that work. As Managing Director, Christine oversees all aspects of Verity’s leadership, coaching and talent management services. 

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