Leading by autobiography is not only for the famous

Leading by autobiography is not only for the famous

In the previous post, I cited examples of well-known world and business leaders who teach and inspire others with their personal stories of identity.  But, as I often tell my students and clients, leading by autobiography is something we can all learn to do. Not only do the Barak Obamas, the Warren Buffetts and the Margaret Thatchers learn and use the lessons of their past, lesser-known people who influence their worlds do it as well.

Recently, I read an interview with Susan Credle, the chief creative officer at Leo Burnett USA, in the February 27 issue of the International Herald Tribune. At one point, the interviewer asked Credle to recall the first time she was somebody’s boss. Her reply: “It was with my brother.”

In fact, her first experience as a boss came at around age five, when her mother and father divorced.  As she and her younger brother traveled back and forth between the two parents by airplane, they “had to run our own little company” within the family. Since Susan was three years older, she named herself general manager of the enterprise. Looking back on the experience, she thinks she was probably a bad boss.

She recalls that she managed her younger sibling mostly with threats and manipulation, and that there were many times when her brother hated her for it. The interesting part of her interview, though, at least for someone like me, was observing Credle’s ability to process the events of her early years and to continue learning from them, using the lessons even today. As she states, “I learned early on that leading people through manipulation is probably not the best way.”

In my view, Susan Credle has a remarkable ability to learn from her life experience, and to turn even negative occurrences into positive learning events. For example, she tells how growing up in a divorced family helped her learn to accept and deal with all kinds of people: “My dad is married for the third time, and there are children of all ages…we all get along. It hasn’t been easy, and we’ve all had to make sacrifices…it’s difficult, it’s complex, but that’s probably been one of the best things that ever happened to me, when it comes to working with people.”

With a family of stepbrothers and stepsisters and a younger stepmother, Credle could have reacted very differently, for example by becoming reclusive or angry with her “broken” home. Instead, she learned the importance of treating people as individuals, in order to understand them and help them integrate with a group. “I now really look at people in terms of more than just what they do at the company,” she explains. “They come with a history. They come with outside lives. I think that trying to understand them as human beings versus workers has really helped, and understanding that different people fit in different ways…As difficult as my childhood was at times, I think that the texture it added to my life was worth it.”

What we observe in this interview is a striking case of an individual who has reflected on the lessons of her upbringing and learned to use them in her everyday life. When we hear her tell stories from her past, we learn something about who she is and what she stands for. We see her teachable point of view. We get a feeling for how she processed the lesson of her childhood to become a more open-minded and empathic leader today.

In Susan Credle’s interview we also see an example of a leader who practices slow management. This is a concept I have been using in my teaching and coaching of the past 15 years, and one that I am coming to see as more important each day. At a basic level, slow management means taking the time to put human contact at the center of our daily management activity. Even with the busiest and hardest-working people I have coached or advised, I encourage finding a slice of time every day to learn about and listen to colleagues subordinates, to discover more about them as people, and to understand what matters to them.

For example, Credle uses the time just before she leaves her office to walk the halls and visit with her people. In so doing, she not only interacts with individuals, she takes the time to learn about their projects and often discovers new opportunities for collaboration among employees. As she describes it, she likes to visit with the people who are working late, to ask: ‘‘What are you doing? Are you O.K.?’’ This practice has led to many new ideas, “because if someone’s working late, they either have an opportunity or a problem, which probably is also an opportunity. I learn things about, say, projects that we could take up to the next level with more people.”

Anyway, I enjoyed this interview on one level for its content and on a second level because it shows that we can all use our personal stories of identity to exert greater influence in our worlds. Reflecting on our past experience and its lessons, articulating our ideas and values, developing a teachable points of view, and learning to tell the stories that bring our views to life—these are all learnable skills.

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