Personal stories and meaning

Personal stories and meaning

At the leadership seminars I gave in Ecuador at the end of June, participants were quite interested about how I came to understand the importance of “personal stories of identity” in a leader’s discourse.  Their questions were pointed and pertinent, concerning exactly how I defined stories of identity, and how effective leaders use them to teach and inspire their followers.

When I write or speak of a leader’s personal stories of identity, I am referring to the stories that reveal the core of the individual, that speak to such issues as “who I am”, “why I do what I do”, “what I believe”, “what I stand for”, or “where I am going in my life”.  We follow others because of who they are, and it is in the personal stories they tell that they reveal their true nature to us.

Effective leaders are lifelong learners who process their life lessons continuously, updating their worldviews as they acquire new experience and knowledge.  And, they communicate their life lessons to others in the form of the personal stories they tell.

One of my favorite examples of the power of personal storytelling is legendary basketball coach Phil Jackson.   When Jackson coached Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls, one of his central goals was to raise the team’s level of consciousness, to remind them continuously that they were part of a large and noteworthy quest, and that their collective pursuit carried an importance far beyond the individual players and their egos.   At team gatherings, he often told stories from his practice of Zen Buddhism, or tales of the lessons of selflessness he learned from spending time with the Lakota Sioux tribe.  In large part, Jackson points to the personal stories he shared as catalysts for a radical transformation of the Bulls’ attitude and approach to the game.

Personal stories and meaning: Man is a storyteller because he is a meaning-seeker. While I use the concept of stories of identity regularly in the context of my lecturing and coaching, the questions from my audience in Ecuador got me thinking again about an even larger issue—the extent to which our personal stories are indeed central elements of our very existence.  In fact, it is through our personal narratives that we define ourselves and create any sense of meaning in our lives.

Years ago, when I was researching narrative theory for my doctoral dissertation, I came across a striking quotation from philosopher Eric Hoffer.  In The Passionate State of Mind (1955), Hoffer writes, “Man is eminently a storyteller. His search for a purpose, a cause, an ideal, a mission and the like is largely a search for a plot and a pattern in the development of his life story.”

We hunger for personal narrative because we desperately need to find a purpose in life.  Telling a life story is not so much a recounting of events as a quest for identity and meaning.  Man is not only a story teller; he is also a meaning-seeker.


  1. Fred E. Miller 13 years ago

    “Once upon a time. . .”

    Great Post, John!

    I love the “Man is a storyteller because he is a meaning-seeker.”

    The same goes for the audience hearing the personal story that reinforces the presenter’s point.


  2. Mary 11 years ago

    John, thank you for this post. It ties in beautifully with work I’ve been doing for several years.

    Currently, I’m researching for a dissertation on transformative leadership and especially around how understanding our story in the context of a larger story helps to transform differences into creative partnerships…I’m looking at this in particular around the issues of land use, and how by engaging people in developing awareness of how their own particular story is part of the story of the place where they live can open options for how to think beyond the commodity view of land and land use. Coming to recognize my own story in this way has been transformative for me…I’m looking for others interested in exploring this line of thought and experience. Needless to say, if you have any ideas on that I’d love to hear them. I think this may be a way to help bridge the divide between the tribal, shamanistic view and the western utilitarian view of land…that we all have gifts to offer the unfolding story AND together we can build a future that more nearly meets everyone’s needs and aspirations.

    Cheers, mary


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