For the past two weeks, I have been on tour with Harvard Business Review Latin America, and also doing private conferences for several companies in El Salvador, Bolivia, Peru and Argentina. The central subject of the tour is “Leading with Your Own Story”, a full or half-day presentation about how anyone can improve as an inspirational leader and communicator.
Of course, leading by autobiography, expressing oneself and inspiring others by telling one’s authentic stories of identity, has been a core concept of my teaching, coaching, research and writing for nearly twenty years. As such, it has been interesting and fun to take my message to four countries here, and to interact with diverse and enthusiastic audiences.
In all of the conferences, I make the point that outstanding leaders—people who truly change the world, or their organizations, or their groups—lead by autobiography. They use their personal stories of identity to inspire others and move them to action. Examples of past world leaders who used their authentic personal stories to great effect include Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Margaret Thatcher and Anwar Sadat. More recently, Barack Obama told stories from his life constantly during the 2008 US presidential campaign. Weaving personal tales into his discourse allowed the candidate to touch the American people on an emotional level, encouraging voters to join his cause.
For many participants in my seminars, it is a revelation to see that the principles that worked so effectively for Gandhi or Mandela in their efforts to change the world can make us more effective as everyday leaders in our worlds.
I often comment that one thing that prevents us from developing ourselves as leaders is our society’s idealized picture of what a leader is. The image of the heroic leader, or the charismatic leader, or the leader with some divine gift or natural talent—these are all myths that society seems to perpetuate, despite the fact that they simply do not reflect the way leadership actually happens.
These myths can indeed be damaging to our personal development. Those of us who see ourselves as not particularly heroic, talented or charismatic may hesitate in our efforts to become people of influence in our worlds, simply because we think of leaders as “chosen” people with extraordinary gifts.
In my conferences and seminars, one of my goals is to help participants understand that leadership is accessible to all of us. And, it almost always begins in small ways, with a simple desire to influence one’s surroundings.
In fact, leadership is a decision, a path we can all choose. Gandhi, Mandela, and Thatcher all started out as ordinary individuals, but individuals who at some point made the decision to make a difference in their worlds. Then, their influence grew as they found their leadership voice and their passion. They had no special gifts or natural charisma. If anything, their charismatic voice developed as a result of their passion and conviction.
In the business leaders I have had the good fortune to meet or to coach, I see the same process as in the outstanding world leaders. Their leadership begins with the decision to take a stand about something they care deeply about. And their influence grows as they develop their capacity to move others by speaking from the heart about the issues of true importance to them.
In every part of society and at every level of organizations, exceptional leaders reveal themselves by showing us what matters to them, and they express their character and their true nature by telling their personal stories of identity.
So, in my conferences, I try to show people how they can influence their world, using the principle of leading by autobiography. With the exercises we do, we begin their journey inward to self-knowledge, to finding and expressing the things that truly matter to them