Turning life’s lessons into inspirational stories of identity

Turning life’s lessons into inspirational stories of identity

Last time, I wrote that effective leaders learn to process their experience and to use their life lessons to teach and inspire others. The finest leaders reflect continuously on their life experience, refining and updating their points of view as they acquire new knowledge and experience.

In 1997, professor Noel Tichy of the University of Michigan wrote The Leadership Engine, a remarkable book that had a significant influence on my thinking about how leaders lead. Tichy writes that leaders develop a “teachable point of view”, based on their life experience and their fundamental values, beliefs, and views about how the world operates. He goes on to say that the leader’s teachable point of view comes from understanding the lessons of his past and how to communicate them. In addition, Tichy feels that one need not have lived through any special or seminal events.  Learning to use our past is accessible to all of us.  As he states: “everyone has a usable past: leaders just use theirs better.”

My coaching and research of leaders during the past 15 years have confirmed this observation.  People of true influence usually do not have a past that is more interesting, noteworthy, or “usable” than that of their peers. They are simply better at recognizing the lessons of their lives and at expressing those lessons to others.

Learning to process one’s life lessons is a central element of the phenomenon I call “leading by autobiography”.  Because they continuously process their life lessons, leaders develop clear views about who they are and what they believe, and they are conscious of the influences that have molded them into the people they have become.

As such, my coaching of a leader almost always begins with exercises in self-understanding. Reflecting deeply on one’s life journey is the first step on the path to the type of self-knowledge that people of influence develop throughout their lives.  At the beginning of a coaching relationship, we seek clarity about some fundamental notions of identity. The client focus on expressing his self-concept, around themes such as:

–Who I am

–What I stand for

–Why I do what I do

–My core values and beliefs, along with their origins

–The influence I would like to have in my organizations and groups

The second fundamental component of leading by autobiography is inspirational storytelling. Leaders store their life lessons in the form of personal stories that they use to guide their thinking and decisions, and to lead others.

Leaders actively craft and tell authentic personal stories of identity that bring their values to life.  And, they use their stories to teach their followers, their teams, and their organizations.  It is through their personal stories that leaders reveal who they are, and it is by revealing their true nature that they inspire others to action.

Thus, the reason I came to use storytelling so extensively in my coaching is because I have seen many successful leaders use it to great effect.  In fact, as I gained experience, both my coaching and my reading of biography were confirming the pattern I had discovered, which I began to summarize in three parts:

First, leaders process their own experience and come to understand the lessons of their lives.  Second, they store those lessons in the form of stories of identity that become the sources of their inspiration and their foundation for teaching others. And third, they use their authentic personal stories of identity to move their followers to action.

The more I observed the phenomenon of leading by autobiography, of leaders teaching and inspiring with their personal stories, the more I came to recognize similar patterns in the discourse of a wide variety of famous individuals.

For example, when Barack Obama is questioned about the need to reform health care in America, he often talks in very personal terms about the illness and death of his mother, about all the things this life event taught him about Americans and their struggles with hospitals and insurance companies.

In the 1980s, when Jack Welch sought to make GE the world’s most competitive company, he told stories of what he learned about competition as a young hockey player in Boston.

When Margaret Thatcher campaigned in the 1970s and 80s about the need to transform Great Britain, she spoke with emotion of her vision that the nation should return to its traditional values—the ones she learned as a child in her parents’ middle-class English shop—self-reliance, personal initiative, and basic human decency.

On several occasions, beginning with my student days at Stanford, I have had the opportunity to meet with and to listen to the legendary investor Warren Buffett, and I have been struck each time by his use of personal story.  When questioned about his investment philosphy or about the most important lessons of his life and career, Buffett invariably lapses into memories from his childhood and adolescent years, tales of timeless wisdom from his home town of Omaha, Nebraska.

While examples from well-known world and business leaders are enlightening, learning to lead by autobiography is not only for the famous.  Anyone, at any level of an organization and at any point in a career, can begin with the concepts and questions enumerated above, and evolve from there. I will expand on this concept next time.


  1. Vibha 12 years ago

    It was great reading this. It re-emphasizes my belief about Leadership – “Lead by Example” and “Be the change you want to see in people”
    I think turning inwards is the best place to look for inspiration. The best way to reinforce certain concepts on others is to derive examples from our own life and how they have worked for us. When leaders do this, they have full conviction and passion about their subject that easily influences others.

  2. Sean Finnegan 12 years ago

    John- I couldn’t agree with you more. Personal stories always make a difference and create instant rapport because you are being vulnerable.
    Being vulnerable allows people into your heart and they believe they know you at a much deeper level.
    The neat thing is everyone has a story, then just need to tell it.

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