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  • Writer's pictureDr. Cindy Petersen

Women, Leadership and Sharing Our Story

"Always remember that you are absolutely unique. Just like everyone else."

-Margaret Mead



Recently, I sat at a table with some site administrators. We were grouped together at round tables and a facilitator was leading us through some thoughtful professional development that unfortunately I do not remember.  What I do remember is a young woman administrator turning to me after I shared a short anecdote at the table. She was expressing her sense of surprise that I too, a ‘seasoned’ superintendent and leader, had experienced life struggles.  It was a reminder to me that sometimes as leaders we show the world our shiny competent capable and ‘arrived’ persona’s and forget that the people we lead and the young emerging leaders watching us also need to know about our battles and our struggles and our scars so that they can see that we are in fact just like them. As a woman on the cusp of the baby boomer generation I can sincerely say that we were conditioned and counseled that we could have it all and be it all … we could ‘bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan and never ever let him forget he’s a man’ (if you don’t recognize that commercial, well – I’m definitely aging myself). We were catapulted into a cult of perfection across all of the roles now possible for us – and I think it is our daughters and granddaughters who may now be making strides to break down those unrealistic expectations.


According to Brene Brown, “Authenticity is a collection of choices that we have to make every day.  It’s about the choice to show up and be real. The choice to be honest. The choice to let ourselves be truly seen.”  Maybe for you this statement elicits an ‘of course’ response. For me, I often have felt that I have spent most of my leadership journey trying to bury my beginnings, my story and my many falls and failures. Brene Brown would call those years and those efforts ‘hustling for your worthiness’.


Our ever changing digital world has added to the ‘hustle’:  In this age of social media we present our perfectly manicured selfies – our best and brightest smiles – finding that angle that shows the world only the very best of who we are.  Our highlight reel is highly edited to only show the world what we want them to see. In a recent Huffington Post article the author quoted a 2015 survey that found that women spend 16 minutes perfecting every selfie which summed to a staggering use of five hours a week!


It’s all about image. As a society, we often still hold up the image of the ‘great man (or woman)’ leader who seems to have been born and destined for greatness and leadership. That is not my story. No one who knew me as a child, teenager or twenty-something would have predicted where I am today. Mine is a messy complicated story of paths that twist and branch – barriers, obstacles and overcoming … and perpetual be-coming. Maybe yours is too?  (Remember we’re unique – like everyone else.)


Our leadership and life stories hold promise and power. According to a blog post by executive coach Jim Laughlin, the power in these stories is ‘their ability to create powerful personal connections, to build trust, to reveal our character and our dreams and intentions, to draw others to our causes and endeavors”. When we tell our story we show vulnerability and openness and we create community and connection. We also give other people permission to be real and vulnerable and to show up fully as well.  The gift of imperfection and the acknowledgement of it through sharing our authentic story builds trust and relational capacity.


So what keeps us from sharing our leadership journey and our life stories?  It may start with the idea of image and perfection we’ve discussed. Our internal critic and governor wants to edit the stories to fit the image of ourselves we’ve created. On a basic level, just like when we were young, we don’t want to look foolish. Two messages that women in particular seem to toggle between is ‘not good enough’ and ‘who do you think you are’.  In terms of sharing our stories we tell ourselves that no one will be interested, that our story doesn’t matter or we may go to the other end of the continuum and think that people will think that we are too full of ourselves.  It takes courage to recognize these competing voices and to push back against them and step out and into your authentic self – and sharing your story in its quirky twisting fullness will both bring you closer to others and to yourself. 


A story I sometimes share is about my childhood. When I was a child we lived in a variety of places. We moved around a lot – no really, A LOT. By the time I was in middle school we had moved over a dozen times, sometimes simply changing neighborhoods but usually moving to new towns, new schools and new communities. We didn’t have very much and by that I mean we were poor by any measure. Our clothes were hand me downs, church clothes closet items, or Salvation Army. I was very self-conscious because I was always the ‘new girl’ and being that I had achieved a height of 5’ 8” (and growing) by the time I was in 3rd or 4th grade I couldn’t exactly hide (although I tried). As a 7th grader I can vividly remember walking down the hallway, trying desperately as always to blend in or be invisible, when a group of girls confronted me so that the leader could tell me that I was wearing her cast offs and she could prove it by the unique repair that had been done to fix a hole in it. As a twelve year old girl I was sure that the ground should open and swallow me up because the shame was overwhelming.  Clearly, I survived and the ground or the shame did not swallow me and as I write this many (MANY) years later I can be grateful for the experience.  Grateful, you may be thinking? Yes, grateful.  My childhood, of which I have only shown you a glimpse, was a great teacher. Today when I walk on one of our school campuses I see it through the eyes of the girl I have just described and it gives me insight and compassion and sensitivity and with this I can help create welcoming, safe and nurturing experiences for all students.

 

While the way that we weave stories of our leadership journey throughout our leadership and with our authentic voice builds our connections, research suggests there are also some specific types of stories leaders tell to create impact.  According to a 2015 Forbes article by David Sturt, great leaders tell four kinds of stories; founding story, pivotal story, teamwork story and great work story. The founding story is a company’s beginning or brand - what they stand for and creates motivation and engagement. The pivotal story tells the story of an event or events and how the organization managed to change and transform, learn and come through the other side. Teamwork stories are just that, stories of phenomenal ways a team came together and the power of synergy and the outcome. Lastly, the great work story is about recognizing individuals whose achievement or performance deserves recognition and elevation – and in the telling elevating everyone who hears it. You may not have recognized them by these names but these stories are all around you and are waiting for you to use them with intention and impact. 


Stories, no matter how you label them, are a pivotal leadership competency. We in the US are living in a time where our basic material needs are generally met and our employees are looking for more than a paycheck – they are looking for belonging, significance and contribution. I am convinced that as leaders our greatest role is the role of meaning maker for the people in our organization. According to Daniel Pink, “The only thing that will really motivate people is that which gives them deep meaning and purpose in their jobs and their lives in general.”  What are the stories we can tell as leaders that connect our people to the soul and meaning of our work?  


“There is no passion to be found in playing small – in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living.”

-Nelson Mandela


I believe one of the most important messages we should be giving everyone in our organization is that no matter where they are in the organization or hierarchy, their contribution matters, what they do makes a difference and who they are as a person is valued.  When we remind people of their potential impact on the lives of our students and community, and we shine a light on the significance of that and the need to be intentional because of that great responsibility, we remind them of the meaning in their work. How can we use story to underscore the emotional connection to this concept?  All of us have a story from our own school years or the school years of a loved one where something someone did in that setting made a lasting impact – that is the story that needs telling. 


When I was a freshman in high school I continued my quest to be invisible – only now I was 5’11” and even less able to fade into the woodwork. One day I was running across the parking lot near the gym. I was in a hurry, it was lunch time and I was trying to find a place in solitude to eat my brown bag home packed lunch and read a book and hopefully disappear for a short while into another world.  As I was seeking shelter, someone called out to me from a car driving nearby.  I turned around surprised to be seen and addressed when, to my mind, it was obvious I was invisible – or nearly so.  It was Mrs. B, a PE teacher and coach. Mrs. B called me over and she told me she had seen me and recognized something in me and that I should go out for the track team.  I felt seen and I felt special – for what seemed like the first time in a very long time.  By that one interaction she launched me into a series of athletic teams and endeavors that went on to shape me and impact me in untold ways. Looking back, I wasn’t special – I was just a kid running across a parking lot.  Mrs. B didn’t know me or any special talents I held – but she did have a sense of her own intent and impact and with that she paved a way for me to belong and contribute and have meaning in my high school experience. 


Abigail Adams once said great necessities call out great virtues. She believed in our power to rise and we do that by action, learning she said is not attained by chance but is sought for with ardor and attended with diligence. The times and your leadership are the current and great necessity calling for your great virtue and action. Being a person of intent, willing to be vulnerable and share your story for impact and purpose is the important work and it won’t happen accidentally.  Life is messy. Be vulnerable # BeBrave Tell your story. Tell the stories of the individuals and teams in your organization. We rise and we lift others up when we show up authentically and intentionally. Let’s touch the future and make #herStory.

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