Know the business story of you

We all spend a good deal of time polishing our public personas. We pour our professional accomplishments into LinkedIn profiles. Facebook has become a channel for sharing events both momentous and meaningless — a new job, a family vacation, what we had for breakfast. Twitter allows us to engage in stream-of-consciousness commentary on almost anything.

None of these, separately or together, fully tell the important and compelling story of you. Something is missing.

Knowing your story — understanding what makes you you — is essential, and part of who you are is your setbacks and failures. Acknowledging your own missteps, struggles, and pain is necessary to acquire the emotional intelligence central to leadership effectiveness. In particular, empathy for others comes from admitting mistakes. Receiving a promotion may be testament to your talent and hard work, but getting laid off presents a test of your character, adaptive capacity, and resilience. When life stops being easy, you have to dig deep to find your true passion. Executive coach Eddie Erlandson calls this discovering your genius zone, the work you’re so passionate about you’d do it for free — but which you figure out how to get paid for.

In their 2002 book Geeks and Geezers, Warren Bennis and Robert Thomas noted the ability to identify “crucible” moments as something that leaders have in common. These experiences ranged from mega-events such as serving in World War II to highly personal ones like a battle with a life-threatening disease. They identified the capacity for positive adaptation through adversity as the most important skill of the individuals they profiled.

Crucible moments are exactly the events and experiences that do not appear on our social media profiles, CVs, and the other instruments we use to present ourselves to the world. Yet they are the sources of the self-understanding and awareness central to your ability to connect with others — and to motivate them toward a shared goal, persevering to overcome obstacles along the way. The true story of you is the key to why you lead and informs why others are drawn to follow you.

One of the most effective and courageous exercises in exploring the fullness of a personal story that I have witnessed was demonstrated in an executive-education session by my colleague, retired Brig. Gen. Dana Born. Born, who had a successful career in the U.S. Air Force before coming to Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, used a technique taught to her at the Authentic Leadership Institute, with which she is also affiliated. She first introduced herself with a recitation of the high points of her impressive background. Just when people were beginning to think that she was quite full of herself, she stopped. Born then began again, this time using the experiences one doesn’t usually share — the disappointments, failures, pain, and regrets of that career. When she paused, the room was silent. Her point was crystal clear. The true story of you has two equally important parts. Your essence is woven from your good and your bad experiences.