When a Personal Story Becomes a Leadership Story

“Fifteen months ago, my life changed forever when my husband of 24 years died by suicide.” So began a story shared by an entrepreneur named Wendy Berger at a gathering of 140 women executives I had the pleasure of providing storytelling training for in early June.

You could feel the air in the auditorium shift immediately after that opening line. Smartphones went down and heads came up as our collective attention focused on this one person opening herself up to us at the front of the room. For the next five minutes, Wendy went on to bravely, and for the first time in public, share her story. She took us back to her humble childhood, talking with love and admiration about her single mother working two jobs to support her family. She talked about the drive and focus with which she approached her education to ensure she could change her circumstances. And she told us how self-sufficient and independent she had always been in her career, relying on little more than her own determination and abilities to succeed.

Then Wendy glanced quietly down at her hands, gathering herself for just a moment while we in the audience exhaled and did the same. Looking up, she told us how, in what felt like the blink of an eye, her life was pulled out from under her when her husband decided to end his own. She talked openly of her devastation and feelings of betrayal, and recalled that, “In the weeks and months after his suicide, I had to be vulnerable for the first time in my career, because I had no choice not to be.” But she went on to explain that, in that vulnerability, she realized she lost nothing and, rather, gained much in terms of the more open, trusting relationships she came to have with her employees, clients, and colleagues.

As Wendy continued, I and everyone else in that auditorium leaned further in towards her, all of us gathering protectively around her from our seats, almost hugging her in a way, so powerful was our connection to her. “In the end,” Wendy told us, “I found strength and endurance in myself I never knew existed. I know I will never really get over my husband’s suicide, but I have learned that some things in life cannot be fixed…they can only be carried.” And then she stopped. And we stopped. And then we applauded, which was, in that moment, the one thing we could do to show our deep respect and gratitude for what Wendy had just shared.

[AUTHOR’S NOTE: As this story is not mine to give, please know I gained permission from Wendy to share it. Hoping to serve as an inspiration for other suicide survivors, she encouraged me to use her real name.]

Over the course of our two days together, one woman after another shared their stories: of triumph and tragedy, of personal reflection and leadership insight, of careers unfolding and lives marching onward, often through fields of great personal or professional adversity. As a storytelling coach who had the chance to work with these women, I was proud of how well they told their stories and grateful for the gift of wisdom and meaning they gave in telling them. As a human being in attendance, I was reminded once again about the incredible ability of stories to connect people to ideas and to each other in the process.

As a storytelling coach who had the chance to work with these women, I was proud of how well they told their stories and grateful for the gift of wisdom and meaning they gave in telling them. As a human being in attendance, I was reminded once again about the incredible ability of stories to connect people to ideas and to each other in the process.

With that all said, at one point the question was raised at how appropriate it might be for a leader to tell a highly personal story in a workplace situation. It’s a good question. On one hand, I believe that one characteristic of a good storyteller (and, for that matter, a good leader) is his or her ability to be vulnerable and let people in. But on the other hand, I also encourage leaders to, when developing or identifying a story to share in the workplace, ask themselves the tough question, “Just because I have a story to tell, why would anyone care to hear it?” No matter how open and honest a personal story might be, it runs the risk of appearing self-indulgent if there isn’t some relevance or purpose in one’s sharing it.

In my experience a highly personal story shared in the workplace works on two levels for leaders.

FIRST — It enables others to know more about you as a person so they can learn more about you as a leader.

The personal story you share helps your audience understand what makes you tick. In this regard, it’s often a good story to share with your team, to enlighten them on something you’ve been through and how that experience has shaped the way you approach your work, as well as your life. In this same vein, a more personal story can be good to share with bosses, partners, or customers, helping them better understand you as a person and a professional. In sharing your personal story, the focal point is on you and your experience, because either your audience has expressed an interest in knowing more about you, or you feel they should, even if it’s not all pretty and perfect. In bravely sharing her story, Wendy gave us all a much richer grasp of the whole person behind the successful businesswoman, enabling us to connect with her in a more meaningful way that could only help, not hinder, one’s ability to work with her.

SECONDLY — It enables others to benefit from the wisdom you have gleaned from your personal experience: leadership lessons that can enlighten, guide and inspire.

In this regard, the focal point of your story is on you and your experience, but also and importantly what you learned from it. These lessons can be used to help someone think and feel differently about a tough situation he or she might face, and give them the motivation and courage to face it. Opening yourself up and letting people in by sharing a story about a highly personal experience is a gift: of trust, honesty and character. It is also a gift of the insight and understanding pulled from your experience: wisdom someone can recall and reflect on. While I cannot relate to losing my spouse to suicide like Wendy did, I can relate to the lessons she learned (and continues to learn) from that experience. And in the weeks since hearing her story, I find myself reflecting on those lessons… often…as they continue to inspire me.

“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” — Maya Angelou

The great American poet Maya Angelou once said, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” While Wendy’s story lifted us all in some way, it also lifted something off of her simply by being able to tell it. You could almost see her get lighter. In sharing her story, Wendy gave us new insight and inspiration. In hearing it, we gave her even greater courage and freedom than she had had before. And we were all richer in the end.

 

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