Tuesday 13 April 2010

The Story of the Reluctant Leader

Here's another example of the power of working with narrative:

Mike had recently been promoted to team leader and was doing a great job. The one concern his boss had was that he seemed to lack confidence in his own abilities as a leader. However, all the indicators were positive: productivity was high, morale was high, absenteeism and sickness were low. But Mike believed he was a fraud, and that in accepting the leader’s job, and salary, he was cheating the organisation. His boss needed to break through this but was not sure it would be possible.

In discussions with Mike, it became clear that his dominant story, that he was a sham as a leader, concealed another, that he was helping the team to perform well. Once more it was the existence of sub-dominant stories that proved so important; and Mike also demonstrated the importance of names in stories.

In fact, he was an example of someone where the name of the story was actually the heart of the issue. His problem essentially was his belief that he was not a good leader. I did all I could to help him loosen his grip on that story: all the evidence was against him, but that didn’t seem to count.

His idea of leadership was either heroic (Gandhi, etc) or tyrannical (his experience at work) and he was clear that he was neither. So we eventually re-named his job as team coach.

The minute we did so, a weight was lifted from his shoulders: this was a role in which he could excel: indeed he was already doing well in it. To strengthen this new story, we did two things.

One was to look back at the past for evidence of Mike as a good team coach - and we found plenty, including from before his promotion. Suddenly he was able to believe that he had earned his promotion and was worthy of it!

The other was that Mike checked with his boss that she was happy with his role being team coach: she readily agreed, and Mike’s problems with team leadership have evaporated.

Mike’s story also helped me to recognise the link between these narratives and people’s underlying value systems. The reason this was such a big issue for Mike was that he felt a genuine commitment to the work of the organisation which employed him, and had a strong personal ethic around a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work. Helping Mike to re-engage with his story about himself as having a real commitment to the organisation, and being essentially an honest person was part of the process we went through.

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