The Stories We Tell

View Of Female Hands Writing Her Life Goals In A Journal

Whether you realize it or not, you are a storyteller. I’m not talking about the ability to draw others in with a compelling narrative, or perfectly timing a punch line. I am talking about the stories we tell ourselves . . . our perspective of a situation that impacts our beliefs, actions, and responses. Those plot lines may be based on accurate, one sided, or totally erroneous information, and yet when we are crafting them in our mind, they inevitably feel as if they are true. Have you ever noticed, however, that gaining additional nuggets of information can totally change how we view the same set of “facts”?

An example of this I heard many years ago was of a man who boarded a bus with three young children. The man slumped down in his seat, seemingly oblivious to the rowdy behavior of his children who were bouncing around and disturbing those near him. Finally, one frustrated passenger spoke up, telling the man his children were bothering others. The man wearily looked up and apologized, explaining that they were heading home from the hospital where his wife had just passed away, and he guessed none of them quite knew what to do. Wow. Can you imagine how differently the passengers felt about the children’s behavior in that moment? The “facts” of the behavior didn’t change . . . it was the understanding of why they were acting as they were that changed the passengers’ perspective.

It is so easy to assign intent to a person’s behavior, decisions, or beliefs — intent that is consistent with the storyline we have already constructed in our mind — which may or may not bear any resemblance to what is really motivating the other person’s actions. There are two aspects of this “storytelling dilemma” that leaders should consider . . .

  • How can you improve the accuracy of your own internal storytelling?

Learn to consciously separate people’s action (behavior) from the why of their actions (their intent). How? The simple phrase “Help me understand . . .” is a nonjudgmental way of opening the door to greater insight into what is driving a person’s actions, and allows you to respond in a way that takes multiple perspectives into consideration.

  • How can you influence others’ internal storytelling?

Start by clearly articulating your intent. We tend to assume that others know what is driving our beliefs/decisions/actions — because it is so clear to us — but that is often not the case. The bonus benefit of routinely sharing your intent — beyond giving people a sense of context and making it less likely that they will “fill in the blanks” with a faulty storyline — is that it also opens the door for them to offer input that could ultimately help you more effectively reach your goals.

As a leader, you are a role model for how to develop a narrative that effectively guides your actions, and those of your organization. So, what’s your story?

The Moving Target of Success


I recently celebrated 25 years at my organization. Amid congratulations from friends and colleagues, I also received several comments along the lines of, “Wow. Twenty-five years at the same organization?” Except it’s not. The organization I am part of today looks very different from the organization I joined a quarter-century ago, just as I’m sure there will be a myriad of changes a generation from now . . . not because we aren’t successful today, but because we want to remain successful tomorrow.

Sometimes, the greatest barrier to future success is current success. After all, what you are doing is working . . . whether you define that as extending your mission reach, having a positive impact on the bottom line, growing market share, or some combination thereof. Why would you want to disrupt that? Because if you don’t, someone else will. Unfortunately, there are plenty of examples of organizations whose view of the future was distorted by overconfidence based on their current success (Kodak, anyone?). Improving or refining a program, product or service that people no longer want or need is a hollow, and unsustainable, victory.

Success may be a moving target, but that doesn’t mean everything is up for grabs. The core values of our organization are the same as when we were founded 166 years ago. Our work has always been focused around kids and their families. However, what kids and families want and need today is different from 100 years ago, or five years in the future. That means, to be successful today and tomorrow, your organization has to continually refine what it is doing now while also taking steps to make your current approach to the work obsolete.

It is a leader’s job to guide your organization through the competing perspectives and tensions of focusing on the now versus preparing for the future . . . which ideas to explore and for how long, when and how to shift programs or approaches, how resources will be divided between the current and future orientations . . . And regardless of where you focus your energies, there will be those — who are truly committed to your organization — who will think you are wrong, that you are skewing too much one way or another. Too safe . . . too risky . . . is it the wise voice of experience or an over-emphasis on outdated approaches . . . is it a crazy idea or the wave of the future?

One thing you can be sure of . . . the target of success WILL move. Your organization will be different ten years from now than it is today. How? Well, my friend, that is up to you.

What Every Leader Needs



As soon as I finish writing this blog, I am going to close my computer and spend the day with a dear friend who is visiting from out of town. I have known her for decades, and she is the kind of friend who, along with being one of my biggest cheerleaders, is not afraid to challenge my perspective, or tell me I just need to get over something, or throw out a question and then leave me to wrestle with it. She is the kind of friend that every leader needs.

Even when you have a great leadership team, which I absolutely do, organizations tend to take on the perspective of the leader. People learn to present ideas in ways that fit with the leader’s approach. And that’s a good thing! It is also a good thing for a leader to have one or more trusted advisors outside the organization to support and/or challenge the leader’s thinking, and here’s why:

Leadership can be lonely. Ultimately, it is the leader’s responsibility to be a good steward for the organization, and sooner or later that will entail making hard decisions. Regardless of the amount of input you may receive, the point of decision — or at least making the case for the best path forward — lies with the leader. Getting an impartial perspective from someone who won’t be directly affected by the decision can help provide that extra nudge or bit of clarity a leader needs to make the best decision for the organization.

Leadership comes with a host of expectations. And it should. However, being “on” and “professional” at all times can take a toll. Leaders need a safe space to vent, and on some days maybe even get a bit snarky. They need the kind of friend who perhaps knew you long before you had the title of leader, or is willing to overlook your role and instead see the whole person, quirks and all. They know how to help you recharge  . . . by giving you space, laughing with you, being totally unimpressed by you, whatever the case may be . . . so you can bring your best self to your leadership role.

Leadership is hard. The challenges from day-to-day, week-to-week, can loom large. A trusted friend can help provide context. You are more than the result of a single challenge or decision, however sometimes that is hard to remember that when you are in the midst of the battle. That’s your passion and commitment to the organization speaking, and that’s a good thing. So is having someone who can help you step back to see the bigger picture, either by cheering you on, or telling you to end the pity party.

Leadership is not a solo act. It takes a great team inside the organization, and one or more trusted advisors outside the organization. I think I’ll leave it at that . . . I have a friend to meet.

The Trouble With Experts…


Do you know the requirements for being considered an expert? There are none!

Anyone can hang out a shingle, write an article (or blog) or two, spread their opinions far and wide, and profess to be an expert. We think of an “expert” as having mastery or comprehensive knowledge of a topic, and yet given the rate of new knowledge generation today, how many people truly have comprehensive knowledge of any single topic?

There are two primary pitfalls related to experts:

  1. Too often, we base our decisions on “what the experts are saying,” which can result in a false sense of security about a path forward. As noted above, anyone can claim to be an expert. Even if you hear the same thing quoted in multiple places, that doesn’t mean it is accurate, or necessarily takes your unique circumstances into consideration. It is your job to decide what is best for your organization, not an expert’s.
  2. We allow perceptions of our own expertise to stunt our growth, and that of our organization. A wise colleague pointed out that once you think you are an expert, you are sunk. When you see yourself as an expert — or having comprehensive knowledge or “the” answer — there is a tendency to quit growing and searching for new answers, which opens the door to someone else leap-frogging past you.

That is not to say that “experts” have no role to play in decision making. They can serve as a valuable harbinger of areas to explore . . . but as a leader it is up to you to consider their predictions/recommendations/guidance within the unique lens and context of your organization. In other words, don’t ignore what “the experts” are saying, just use it as the starting point not the ending point of your consideration and decision-making. Use “industry experts” as one variable, not the sole source, of charting your path forward.

And for yourself, why not set wisdom as the goal rather than being an expert. Wise people have a lot of experience and knowledge . . . layered with innate curiosity, insight and good judgment. Wise people don’t downplay what they know, but neither do they stop asking questions and learning from a whole host of others, both those recognized as experts and those who have yet to be acknowledged as such.

One last consideration . . . have you noticed that the greatest breakthroughs rarely come from the crowd following the experts? They come from the people who look at the world, and the challenges before them, in an entirely different way. Again, that is not to say that experts don’t have their place. They do, however . . .

The trouble with experts is . . . they don’t know your organization like you do.  Yes, they may have valuable knowledge, but the decision regarding what to do with that knowledge is all yours.

Leaving the Harbor


“A ship in harbor is safe, but that’s not what ships are built for.” — John A Shedd

Building on Shedd’s wisdom, leading during the calm is nice, but that is not why we need leaders. Your people can manage the status quo. They know what to do when things go as planned. Sunny day leadership — when your people don’t need you to guide them — shouldn’t be about kicking back and enjoying the warmth. Rather, that is when a leader needs to be looking ahead and positioning the organization to thrive amidst whatever comes next. That’s what leaders are for!

Persuading a group of people to step into the unknown, especially when they are comfortable where they are at, is the job of a leader. “Sure things” don’t take leadership. They take good management, yes, but not leadership. Casting a clear vision for the future in the midst of a fog of competing predictions and expert opinions, and a myriad of challenging variables outside your control . . . building a network of people excited to walk along side you on the journey . . . outlining specific action steps to move the organization from here to there . . . that is the stuff of leadership.

Before you start puffing out your chest or cueing the dramatic music, however, leadership is also about uncertainty and course corrections and hard decisions. It is about weighing consequences and pushback and possibilities and risk. It requires far more hard work, and entails far less glamour, than it might appear on the surface. The “weight” of leadership is a real thing. And for the best of our breed, leadership is far more about who a person is, and how they approach the world, than it is about any position they might hold.

Leadership isn’t for everyone, any more than accounting or welding, or farming, and that’s okay. Yes, you can hone your skills, and learn new ways to increase your effectiveness, but just as in any profession, a bit of it has to be “in” you to persevere through the work it takes to do it really well. One of the best descriptions I’ve found to describe this inner sense of purpose comes from Parker Palmer in Let Your Life Speak, where he said, “Vocation at its deepest level is, ‘This is something I can’t not do, for reasons I’m unable to explain to anyone else and don’t fully understand myself but that are nonetheless compelling.’”

If you’ve got that, you’ve got what it takes to be a leader. So take a deep breath and leave the harbor.

Leading in Life

Family Figures Stand On Scales Between Career And Family. Concep
Originally published October 28, 2015.

Good leaders take their jobs very seriously. They work hard, and even when they’re not “at” work, their mind is often “on” work. And yet, the best leaders also recognize that their life is not defined by a professional role. They are someone’s child, perhaps they are a spouse and/or parent, a friend, a neighbor … These relationships often came before, and with luck will last long after, any particular leadership position. These are the relationships, and the memories, that will sustain a soul during challenging times, and warm a heart on the most ordinary of days. These are the relationships that add richness, not only to your life, but also your ability to lead whole people … who also have lives outside of work.

Work life balance. While the term itself might be a bit of misnomer . . . life always seems to be tilting one direction or another . . . the idea of integrating the multiple parts of life is critical for you and those you lead. Kids have ball games and doctor appointments, appliance repair people want to come during the day, and family crises rarely confine themselves to evenings and weekends. As the saying goes, life happens … to you and your staff. Embrace it. Make room for it. Of course it doesn’t happen at convenient times … bummer … carve out the time for it anyway. And make sure your staff know it’s okay for them to do the same.

While I have always been vocal in communicating my commitment to being a family friendly organization, a senior leader in our organization once pointed out that it didn’t matter what I said . . . If staff didn’t see me modeling the behavior, they wouldn’t really think it was okay. Point well taken. There will always be meetings, deadlines, and things you should be doing at work. Your son won’t always be playing t-ball. There will likely be times your parents could use an extra measure of support. Spouses have special events that you want to be a part of. You can’t get those times back. Take them.

And find a way for your staff to live a whole life as well. Yes, there will be times when you may be thinking, “So-and-so” is gone AGAIN!?! (Have you ever noticed that flu tends to travel through the entire family one person at a time . . . and sport seasons have a lot of games in a short amount of time?) Trust me, you can tell the difference between a slacker and someone who is working really hard to fit in a very full life. Even if it is at times inconvenient, those are the people I want in my organization. And the way to keep them, is to support them as they try to juggle it all.

You see, being a great leader requires more than meeting a deadline, completing a project, or meeting strategic goals. Sometimes it requires offering a measure of understanding and grace for well-rounded staff (including yourself) who provide the foundation for your organization’s long-term success.

Frying/draining/demoralizing your people by expecting 110% at all times, regardless of the situation, is a sure-fire way to limit your organization’s ultimate impact. On the flip side, being supportive of, and role modeling, creative ways to integrate both work and a full life outside the office walls is a key step in the journey from “just” being a leader at work, to being a leader in life.

Don’t Handcuff Your Strategy

group hand fist bump

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”

This Peter Drucker quote is well known, and oft repeated, because the validity of the statement resonates with so many leaders whose best-laid plans have been derailed by the seemingly illusive nature of “how we do things around here.” What’s more, often adding to the frustration, leaders can’t simply “decide” to change the culture, because edicts from on high only seem to reinforce the organization’s inherent thoughts, feelings and behaviors — sort of like a Chinese handcuff where the harder you try to pull your fingers (or your culture) away, the tighter the hold becomes.

If you can’t force a culture to change, and yet the wrong culture can handcuff your strategy, what’s a leader to do? Quit pulling! It works with Chinese handcuffs, right? When you stop trying to overpower and instead move toward what seems to be constraining your organization, its hold on you eases considerably. Fighting against a culture is draining. Conversely, working with it can be energizing and a key part of moving your strategy forward. Nice theory, right? But how exactly does one put it into practice?

First, recognize that no culture is all good or bad. That means you have the opportunity to view your organization’s culture as a source of strength. The “barrier” that seems to be derailing your best-laid plans may simply be the shadow side of the strength that can help your strategy succeed. Before you can use your culture as a source of strength however, you have to be able to get your arms around what it is — specifically — because every organization’s culture is unique.

Culture is built around the stories we tell ourselves about our organization, and the emotions we attach to those stories — we don’t give up . . . we are perfectionists . . . we speak truth to power . . . we are highly efficient . . . Notice the “we”. Culture resides in a group, not in an individual. Therefore it tends to be self-reinforcing. Organizations attract people who “fit” within their culture. So work with that. What specific behaviors from the stories your organization tells itself can help propel your strategy forward?

Jon Katzenbach refers to such traits and behaviors as “the critical few.” (See article) Focusing on the critical few (3 – 5) behaviors that — if expanded upon — can propel you forward, rather that trying to pull the organization away from those behaviors that seem to be impeding progress, generates the energy necessary for your strategy to succeed. The key is to build on behaviors rather than trying to change mindsets/cultures. We act ourselves into new ways of thinking rather than thinking ourselves into new ways of acting.

Once again, actions speak louder than words. Don’t handcuff your strategy.