Have you been having these conversations around the breakfast table lately? “I don’t want to have to go back to the office”, “It’s so nice to work out in the middle of day”, “I wonder how much money we’ve been saving with not commuting and buying lunches on the go?”. Some have been taking it a step further, planning their exit strategies from living in high pressure, crowded cities or taking an extended road trip. Many are seeing the possibility of more options and greater flexibility. The COVID crisis has brought about a great unfreezing in our lives, and with it the story we tell ourselves about who we are and what we want.
In the 1970’s, journalist Richard Sennet interviewed Greek Americans working in a sweaty Boston bakery. They worked hard, but for generations they were proud to be part of a long heritage of bakers who took deep satisfaction in their work. Then, their company was sold and automated. The workers were now pushing buttons to produce bread they never touched. No longer seeing themselves as bakers, they didn’t plan to stay very long and had no idea what the future held. Their personal story no longer made sense and they became emotionally detached and indifferent.
Crisis or major life change – be it a corporate take over, getting promoted or a pandemic – can shatter our inner story that gives meaning to our life. Your inner narrative – that small permanent voice in your head constantly replaying the important events and relationships that make up our life – is what helps us make sense of the world and our actions.
Having a coherent inner narrative is key to success in life. It drives us forward with purpose and determination. We perform better in all aspects of our life. But in crisis it becomes vulnerable and it starts to fragment and we can lose touch with what makes our life meaningful. Our future becomes unclear. As we all grind through the COVID crisis, we don’t want to become like the Boston bakers.
You are your story
The human-like androids of the HBO hit series Westworld have their memories erased at the end of each day so they can repeat their programs for the theme park guests. Except something goes wrong. A bug in the system has allowed them to retain some memories despite the repeated erasures. Like waking from a dream, the fictional androids have accidentally been given the tools to be the authors of their own story. They start to develop free will and set off on a quest to discover who they really are.
Antonio Damasio, a leading neuroscientist and author, has explored the origins of consciousness and human identity. He concluded that our sense of self emerges directly from the brain’s ability to weave together a coherent narrative from the memories of our past. It is the stories of our lives – the movie in our mind as Damasio calls it – that is the basis of our identity – our sense of self in the world. Your mind creates you from the memories of your past.
Become your own author (again)
Young children lack the neural hardware to organize life memories into an integrated narrative. They may give you a list of discrete events but are unable to weave them together. Three mental muscles are needed. The first is the ability to order memories across time. The second is understanding how you were changed by those events. The third, and perhaps most critical, is the ability to take those outputs and define an overall theme that expresses your values and beliefs, motivations and purpose that define the core of who you are. These abilities emerge in our teens and 20’s and it is during these critical years that our central narrative is formed. It is how we come to express who we are. It is a time when we learn how to be our own authors. But soon after, we stop using those muscles.
Who is writing your story now?
When working with leaders it is the first question that we ask. Some are struggling in their roles, while others are new to leadership and are trying to find their way. But whether they are fully aware of it or not, their inner story is in a state of unfreezing, brought about by the current COVID crisis or by other challenges in their life. Developing an inner narrative is deep transformative work that can be life changing.
The journey begins with an act of remembering. Like an archaeologist facing an expanse of ruins waiting to be explored, participants are guided to uncover the significant events and relationships of their early life that came to define them. A leadership narrative is not a biography, but rather selected episodes of one’s life that shaped the core values and beliefs about oneself and the world.
The second phase brings an outside-in perspective, seeking input from those who appreciate the unique gifts and talents that the leader may be less aware of and incorporating those insights into their emerging leadership narrative. In addition, participants learn about their unconscious motives – what energizes and engages them at the deepest level and how their motives have influenced their choices throughout their lives
With the core building blocks in place individuals are now ready to begin assembling their leadership narrative and activating it in their lives. The final product – be it a written document or in another form that is most meaningful – is ultimately less critical than the process of creating it.
For those who have invested themselves in the process, they say that it was among the most significant growing experiences of their adult lives, becoming more authentic leaders in the process. They have once again become authors of their own narrative and are equipped to continually expand and develop it throughout their lives.
The pen is in your hands
In many ways, COVID has unfrozen our existing narrative and put the pen just in our line of sight. While it may not seem that way, life will continue to move towards some version of a new auto-pilot. And before that happens, there is this opportunity to pick up the pen and start to become reacquainted with your story. It’s the source of energy that allows us all to lead with authenticity, purpose and determination.
Christine Miners is an experienced talent management expert and passionate about making an impact with her customers through keeping it simple, tangible and practical. With more than 20 years 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.
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.