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Mining your leadership story

Every leader can improve over time, but it's not just about experience. Leaders need to regularly evaluate and reflect about yesteerday's leadership to improve tomorrow's.

5 min read


Mining your leadership story

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Lead Change is a leadership media destination with a unique editorial focus on driving change within organizations, teams, and individuals. Lead Change, a division of Weaving Influence, publishes twice monthly with SmartBrief. Today’s post is by Bill Donahue.

The leader you are today is the result of choices, habits and principles at work in your leadership yesterday. 

So here’s the question: What’s true about your leadership today that was influenced by your leadership story yesterday? Your story matters, and it shapes how you lead today.

The best leaders glean wisdom from mentors, authors and other leaders. But a leader’s most significant resource is staring at them in the mirror. So, explore your personal leadership story, and gain leadership insights buried deep within your own experiences and learning.

Here are some tips for mining your leadership story.

Digging through past decisions

When scrutinized, your past decisions — good or bad — serve as wise teachers if you’re a willing student. My hunch is you already spend time mulling over bad decisions and likely never learn from great ones. So, let’s dig into your most important decision-making moments from the past.  

In my leadership journal, I list key decisions that have shaped me, affected my work and impacted my relationships. Then I dig deep into each one with questions like these: 

  •  What was my process for making this decision? Did I seek input, use intuition, consult data, etc.?
  • How quickly was I able to decide? What factors influenced the speed of my decision?
  • How did it impact the livelihood, emotions, work environment or success of others?
  • What was the ripple effect of my actions or inaction?
  • Did I directly contribute to the result? Should I take credit or accept blame? What other factor(s) outside my control had an impact?
  • Overall, how do I feel about the decision? Would I make it again? What would change?

 Sift through your answers for themes, insights, and wisdom for future decisions.

Revitalize your relationships

I like to ask leaders whom I coach, “What do you think happens when you leave the room? What do they remember about you when the project is over? How do people feel? What might they say about your demeanor, relational style, conversation and overall leadership presence?”

Every leader leaves a wake. The question is, “What kind of wake?” Is it the kind team members can surf or the kind they’ll get swamped by? 

After you leave the room, do people feel empowered or empty? Clear or confused? Inspired or incensed?

I remember walking into a vice president’s office as she was ending a call, and she enthusiastically said, “Wow. I would work with her anywhere, anytime! You name it — I’m there!” 

Compare that to a leader who arrogantly challenged a group of potential followers, saying, “I’m ready to take this next hill, and I’m going forward — with or without you!” You could almost hear people thinking, “Have a nice trip. Let us know when you get back.” It was all about his ego, and people wanted no part of that.

As you mine your leadership story, assess the quality of your closest relationships. What kind of impact do you have on folks? Would others join you to take the next hill? If not, and you’ve caused some relational damage, now is the time to name it, own it and make it right. Otherwise, you’ll be standing alone at the top. 

Take note of transforming moments

Transformational experiences. Turning points. Defining moments. We all have life-changing, leadership-altering events and experiences that radically shape us. They appear from nothing but can change everything.

Some are personal: deaths and births, failures and successes, terrifying darkness and exhilarating light, sadness and joy, pain and pleasure. Life stuff. Others are communal: experiences with friends and families, our collective fears, our encounters with unforeseen enemies, unexpected pandemics and overwhelming local or national tragedies.

Still, others are vocational: promotions and awards, new hires and necessary layoffs, strategic wins and embarrassing foul-ups, fortunes made and contracts lost —  sometimes all in the same day! 

Mine your leadership story. Pay attention to what happened, who was involved, how you responded, emotions you processed, support you enlisted, pain you struggled through, healing you experienced and success you achieved. 

And remember: Experience is not the best teacher. Evaluated experience is the best teacher! So, grab that shovel and get to work. 

Bill Donahue is an experienced leadership consultant, speaker and coach working to accelerate transformational growth in leaders of groups and teams. He partners with leaders to create clarity, vision, and strategic movement toward personal and organizational goals.

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