“The great question of leadership, about taking real steps on the pilgrim’s path, is the great question of any individual life: how to make everything more personal.”
–David Whyte, Crossing the Unknown Sea: Work as a Pilgrimage of Identity
David Whyte’s observation about leadership echoes one of my most frequent pieces of advice to clients about improving their communication: Make it more personal.
Excellent leaders understand that the most meaningful communication happens when we reveal ourselves in personal ways. We show our passion and enthusiasm through the personal stories we tell; it is through these personal stories that we make deep, emotional connections with our audience.
My coaching experience has persuaded me unequivocally that personalization works. The most effective leaders I have worked with are not only in touch with their personal stories, they do not hesitate to speak from the heart about the lessons of their life experience.
The celebrated basketball coach Phil Jackson has always brought his personal stories to work with him. When Jackson took over as coach of Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls in 1988, he inherited a team with some of the league’s most talented and spectacular players, but one which had never won a championship. From the outset, one of Jackson’s central goals was to get the team’s star players to join in a collective quest, to adopt a selfless attitude, and to accept that team success was more important than their individual accomplishments.
At team gatherings, Jackson began telling stories of his own life lessons, tales of his practice of Zen meditation, or of the notions of selflessness he gleaned from spending time with the Lakota Sioux tribe. As players started listening to their new coach and his embracing his novel approach, a new unselfish team philosophy developed, and the NBA championship titles soon followed. In the book Sacred Hoops, where he recounts these events, Jackson cites the personal stories he shared with his team as one of the critical elements that led to the transformation of the Bulls’ team culture and overall approach to the game.