A quick visit to the north

A quick visit to the north


On Wednesday of this week, I left the calm of my mini-vacation in the Swiss Alps and journeyed to a remarkable chateau, the Domaine de Rebetz, about an hour north of Paris in Picardy. The occasion was a L’Oréal seminar called “Transition to General Management”, a week-long training program for managers taking on significant new responsibilities, most often as general managers for a country, a brand, or a division. My role was as a facilitator for a morning session on sharing learning among the group members, by telling their personal stories of successes and failures.

This was my first time working with L’Oréal, and they asked me to spend 10-15 minutes talking about myself and my work, in particular about how I came to believe in storytelling as a powerful form of communication for leaders and brands. 

Every time people ask me to do this, I am reminded that it is far more difficult to make a short speech than a long one. If I have a few hours, or even days, to discuss my views on narrative communication and leadership, there is no problem. On the other hand, deciding what to say and what not to say in a few minutes is more of a challenge. 

I do not recall his exact words, but many years ago I was told that Abraham Lincoln was once asked if he would be willing to deliver some wisdom on the topic of leadership. His response was that he could do so immediately if he were allowed to speak for a few hours. On the other hand, if they wanted him to speak for five or ten minutes, he would need a good amount of time to prepare.

In any case, in this particular context, I was limited to 15 minutes, and the following is a rough recap of what I ended up saying. Writing this summary is a good exercise for me, as I have never put this “on paper” before, and it will help me organize my thoughts for the next short speech.

Introducing myself and what I do: For the past 20 years, my research, writing, and coaching of leaders has centered on how individuals at all levels of organizations can enhance their ability to influence those around them. One of the most powerful tools of influence is the telling of personal stories of identity.

They use their personal stories to express who they are, why they do what they do, how they see the world, and what values they live by. These personal stories of identity help those around them understand the sources of the leader’s values and beliefs.

What stimulated my interest in story? I did not begin as a storyteller per se, but rather as a student of leadership. When I began doing research for my doctoral dissertation, I looked for patterns, characteristics, behaviors, or styles that transformational leaders share. In other words, can we find some elements that the effective ones have in common? 

And, as expected, I did not find very much. I say “as expected” because we all know that there are examples of outstanding leadership from all types of people. Some are tall, some short. Some are narcissistic where others are self-effacing. Some are women, others are men. Some are authoritarian, others consensus builders. Some speak in booming voices, and others almost never raise their voice. Some are extroverts, others introverts. Some are charismatic speakers, but most are not. And so on…

In the end, there are no personality traits, or behaviors, or physical characteristics that define the winning leader. On the other hand, what I did discover is a pattern that has proven true for me over the past two decades. 

Leaders who truly influence and inspire those around them almost always exhibit these attributes:

–They have a deep self-knowledge that comes from ongoing self-analysis and questioning.

–With this self-understanding as a base, they develop a profound sense of who they are, and a clarity about the values and beliefs they live by.

–They have the courage to speak from the heart about the things that truly matter to them.

–They influence others by telling their personal stories of identity.


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