Go from Now to Wow
Recreate your leadership story
May 01, 2011
The stories you tell yourself, about your- self, can make or break your future.
In a dark moment of the film,“Casablanca,” Humphrey Bogart’s character is drunk, alone in his bar, when Ilsa, his long-lost love (Ingrid Bergman), walks in the door.
“Can I tell you a story?” she asks.
“Has it got a ‘wow’ finish?” he slurs.
“I don’t know the finish,” she says.
“Well go on, tell it. Maybe one will come to you as you go along.”
Like Ilsa, when we are faced with challenges in our lives and work, we tell ourselves and those around us stories to explain the situation. But, unlike Ilsa, we know—or think we know—the ending: “I don’t work well in a team, what’s the point of giving this project my best effort?” “My counterparts in Asia don’t like me, why should I bother coordinating with them?”
These self-defeating narratives often define our lives, acting as insurmountable obstacles that prevent us from becoming true leaders. These stories may even sound logical. If you hate working in a team, why would you give your all to a team project? And if you think your colleagues in Asia don’t like you, why would you go out of your way to work with them?
Most stories exist only in your mind. The reason you “don’t work well in a team” might be because you’re uncomfortable being challenged or can’t man- age conflict. And how do you know that your colleagues in Asia don’t like you? Have you asked them?
The going-in stories that you tell yourself exercise a powerful, often-hid- den pull on how you perceive reality, make decisions, and act. They serve as a protective buffer from the mental, emotional, or physical discomfort that you experience when faced with change, enabling you to remain in your comfort zone—safe and unchallenged.
When you change your inner narrative—your going-in story—from negative to positive, limitless possibilities open to you. As an executive coach, I’ve seen radical transformations occur with people who change their going-in stories and witnessed their amazing successes.
Take Martin, a HR executive at a Fortune 100 company. He’d just been promoted to head of HR for the Asia- Pacific division when his COO asked me to coach him. Martin’s going-in story was that he wasn’t a true leader whom others sought out for guidance and direction. He thought of himself as a mere hiring-and-firing manager. But now, in every meeting and interaction, he would have to project leadership qualities: strength, confidence, decisiveness, and innovative thinking.
I told Martin that he already had years of leadership experience and already made hundreds of leadership decisions that had affected the lives and productivity of his colleagues.
We created a balance sheet to show the costs versus benefits of his going-in story. The benefits were appealing: By not thinking of himself as a true leader, he never had to spearhead innovative initiatives. As long as he did adequate—if never ground-breaking—work, his place in the company would be secure.
But what about the costs? Now that his managers expected fresh ideas, and people reporting to him looked for leadership, his managers would soon notice that Martin was playing it safe.
Martin realized that he needed to realign his thinking—fast. I call this the ouch moment: you realize that the costs of your going-in story far outweigh the benefits, and you feel a sense of urgency to make a change for the better.
Ironically, your going-in stories are rarely shared by your peers. I once worked with a female executive who had been with the company for three years but still felt she wasn’t taken seriously. This going-in story kept her from offering suggestions or sharing opinions, even when she felt strongly.
I encouraged her to open up to her colleagues, telling them why she usually kept quiet in meetings. She learned that the rest of the group took her seriously, valued her perspective, and had never considered her too inexperienced.
Sharing your going-in story with others—in an objective, way—can reveal just how off base your perceptions are.
The stories you tell yourself about your life, wants, and needs can limit your potential, or open up new vistas of possibility. When you test these stories against reality, a new, more positive worldview comes into being. You can even give yourself a wow finish.