To change your leadership style, rewrite your leadership story

Have you ever been at a funeral and, as the clergy or relatives or friends offer tribute to the deceased, found yourself wondering:

What will they say about me?

While the Irish Catholic in me winces at thinking about myself during another’s tribute, I must admit the moment of introspection can get me thinking, both personally and professionally.

Now I’ll stop short of recommending that managers attend more funerals. But I’m thinking that those of us who take responsibility for leading others would do well to pause on a regular basis and ask, “What will they say about me?” Especially when we’re still in a position to influence the answer -- and we are, every day.

Think about it. Leaders are the authors of their own leadership stories. We write them with every decision we make, every conversation we have, every promotion we award, every meeting we lead. We’ve been writing our story since the day we accepted the job. And those we lead have been reading our story—and writing their own reviews.

Unfortunately, too many leaders settle for what amounts to their story’s first draft, and ride it until everyone around them knows each chapter by heart. Some never ask what others would say about them; others ask, but don’t respond to the answer.

Why not rewrite your leadership story?

You can, you know. And the good news is, rewriting doesn't require that you change who you are. It requires that you change what you do. And that's totally under our control, each and every day.

Let me repeat that. What I do is totally under my control. No, we cannot control what will happen to us; we cannot determine whether we have a lousy boss or impossible goals or even a dictate to lay off staff. But we absolutely control our response to those situations. And if I have been responding in one way to a situation, I can decide -- beginning today -- to respond differently.

If I choose to.

Once I accept that I can, in fact, rewrite my leadership story, I can change my entire approach to managing. I can see growth as a real possibility. I can stop seeing my shortcomings as character flaws and begin identifying behavior changes that can  transform them into strengths.

But let’s be frank; this can be hard work, and I’m already too busy. If I’m going to really follow through, I need a process.

Since I’m writing a story, how about using the writer’s process?

As you’ve read on this website many times before, every writer follows these six steps (whether consciously or not):

  • Develop an idea
  • Report the story
  • Focus the story
  • Organize the material
  • Draft
  • Revise

Let’s see how the writing process can work for our leadership story.

Develop an idea: Every leader needs to have an answer to the question, “What kind of leader would I like to be?” Sometimes the answer is based on your experiences with past bosses; sometimes it’s the product of your successes and failures in trying to lead others. Remember that at this point in the process, you haven’t done any reporting yet, so the idea is untested. Maybe you think you’re too easy on people. Or you need to be a more vocal advocate. Or manage your time more efficiently. What does your leadership need?

Report the story. While your take on your leadership style is important, it needs to be tested against the perspective of others -- those you lead. These are your leadership story’s “sources," whose feedback can help you identify the gap between your assessment of your leadership style and the reality of its impact.

To be most valuable, make sure your sources have different perspectives: your boss, members of your staff and peers in other departments. Find one source who no matter what their job, can be trusted to give you straight talk -- even if you didn’t ask for it. Not only will your sources help you identify the gap between the impact you aspire to have and the one you are having, they also will help you identify the behaviors you could adopt -- or abandon -- in order to achieve that desired impact.

Focus your story. The most important question a reporter can ask before beginning to write is: “What is this story really about?” For the leader, the answer can help organize the information you’ve gathered from your sources and prioritize how you’ll use it. For example, let’s say your boss and members of your staff talked about your tendencies to be distracted during one-on-one conversations; to write curt emails, to cut people off during meetings. This story, you decide, is about communication.

Organize the story. Now that you know what the story is about, you can identify the areas you most want to work on. Yes, you also heard from the sources that you play favorites in making assignments and sometimes let mediocre performers slide, but those areas will have to wait for another day.

This rewrite of your leadership story will emphasize behaviors that could improve your effectiveness as a communicator: more attention to listening, fewer memos and more spoken messages, a determination to treat people’s ideas with more respect. Remember, you’ll have opportunities to address other aspects of your leadership. For today, it’s communication.

Draft the story. In all likelihood, making changes to your leadership style will take time. The distractions that occur during one-on-one conversations will not go away, and you’ll occasionally succumb to them. That’s why it’s important to see your first attempts at changing a behavior as a draft -- a work in progress. Look for progress and try to identify what helps you; similarly, be conscious of what causes you to fall into old habits. And most importantly, check back with your sources to see if they notice any changes.

Revise the story. Over time, based on your own evaluation and what your sources tell you, you can adjust your tactics. For example, you might have set a goal of meeting individually with each member of your staff every two weeks. A recent downsizing has made that impractical, however, and you need to reduce the frequency of those meetings. In another circumstance, you might decide your bi-monthly meetings are insufficient, so you increase the frequency. The key is to keep sight of the goal -- in this case, become a better communicator -- and the fact that achieving it requires you to do something.

One last thought: rewriting your leadership story requires a healthy dose of humility. Asking others to honestly assess the effectiveness of your leadership can be sobering. But looking back and realizing you passed up the opportunity to become a better leader also can be sobering.

Don’t let someone else write your leadership story. Slap your own byline on it and start rewriting.

You can become the leader you want to be -- one choice at a time.


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