Podcast: Leading from your life story

In this episode of Ask the Expert we are chatting to Dr Diana Theodores, an international performance coach, executive educator and facilitator specialising in Communications and Leadership Presence. Diana is joint director for the Impact and Influence programme at Cranfield and the author of Performing as You.

Leaders perform at their best when they are aligned with their sense of meaning and purpose. And in order to achieve that, it’s essential to understand some of the great defining moments in your life that have helped shape your perspective, your points of view – so all those things that constitute your DNA as a leader.

Listen now: 22 mins 

Podcast transcript

LC: Welcome to Cranfield’s podcast series, Ask the Expert. My name is Lester Coupland, Executive Development Director and Head of Praxis in the School of Management. In today’s episode, we’re chatting to Diana Theodores, Programme Director for our Impact and Influence programme. Welcome, Diana. How are you today?

DT: Great. Hi, Lester. Good to be with you.

LC: Great, great to have you with us, Diana. And today we’re going to talk about leading from your life story. And so, Diana, and as a leadership performance coach: Why the subject of a life story? Why is it so important to you in your work?

DT: It’s so important because leaders when they’re at their best, are aligned with their sense of meaning and purpose, something bigger than their organisations, bigger than themselves. And in order to be aligned with your meaning and purpose, and to be truly grounded in your own authenticity, it’s absolutely essential to understand some of those great defining moments in your life that have helped shape your perspective. Your points of view, if you like, your DNA as a leader.

LC: Can you talk a bit more about what you mean by by life story, Diana, and is this one narrative? It sounds like a really big subject to navigate.

DT: It’s a huge subject to navigate. And of course, one’s life story is made up of so many extraordinary moments. They could be epic moments, they could be very ordinary moments. They could be those defining moments, turning points, inspirations, experiences, those times we call the ‘crucible moments’ when you’ve survived through an enormous challenge, or you’ve experienced soaring success. And so your life story is comprised of many, many episodes. And a lot of those episodes have such vibrant, powerful and profound insights and lessons. So if you can start to, if you like, go on a bit of an archaeological dig into the story of your life and to start surfacing those moments, those experiences and just start to really reflect on what was the powerful message behind that particular moment? What are some of the things that truly shape who I am, now, as a leader. It’s a very big subject and it’s not something that you can do in one moment. When we say life story, it’s not one definitive story. You don’t simply script the story, and then recycle it over and over again. You’re always going to be reflecting on the powerful moments, insights and lessons that have come to you. And sometimes they come to you in very unexpected moments. So it’s really about opening your radar to your own life story and reawakening yourself to its possibilities. You know, in my performance coaching space with clients, whether it’s face to face or virtually, of course, performance coaching talks an awful lot about things like, you know, how can I be a better communicator as a leader? How can I get buy in for my vision? How can I manage my energy better, and so on and so on. And all of those issues, of course, constitute great performance. But the one burning question that leaders bring up again and again, more than any other issue is, how can I bring more of myself through those doors? How can I be more me? And how can I authentically leverage more of who I am and what I can contribute? So it’s such a powerful grounding in what I would call authenticity.

LC: It’s really interesting, Diana, and I hear you talking about stories and how these stories shape you. And how do these stories shape you? And how do they, secondary thing, how do they enable your leadership voice and your presence?

DT: Well, it’s such an interesting question. And I think all of us have stories that we have told ourselves over and over again, throughout our lives. They might be stories that come from our childhood. They might be stories that are essentially habitual behaviours. And very often these stories start to shape our very physicality. You know, stories are memories and memories are behind your muscles. And stories exist in you at the very cellular level of who you are. So, stories can make us contract, they can make us stuck. They can make us proud, they can make us value ourselves, they have the capacity to release us to be at our best or to confine us and to censor us. So, I think if we start off with the notion of story as being about our very ground, the ground upon which we stand, metaphorically, and even literally, where do we come from? What are our roots? So it could begin with your ancestors, and it could go all the way through to where you are now in your life. You know, what made it possible for me to be here today, who I am, what I do, how I do it, what I care most about. When we start investing in those stories and valuing those stories, I almost see us as great, grand creatures walking the Earth with a big majestic cape behind us through which is woven all of the stories of our life. And I believe that that image, carrying the whole history of your life stories and of those who came before you, starts to give you a great sense of investment and value in yourself. And that is a magnificent energy for your presence.

LC: That sounds fantastic, Diana, and clearly, you’re so passionate about this. And can you give me maybe one or two examples about how things that surface in these stories have benefited your leadership clients?

DT: Yes, that’s really interesting too, because of course, for every client, there’s a very, very different experience of what happens when they access a particular story or set of stories, whereby they can say, Aha, I see something that I had taken for granted or not been awakened to before. So things like, not so long ago, I had a client who said, I really need to find my voice. That was what she presented as a leader. She’s a very senior leader in a big organisation. And she’d been asked to give a lot of keynote talks in some new, very large arenas. And she thought she needed some actual voice technique. But when we got together, what we discovered very quickly was that she was locked down in one particular image and story about herself, which was giving her entire performance, quite a locked down tone. There was something inaccessible about her, as much as she shared great messages, we didn’t know who she was as a person. So we’d started working a lot on her life story and I asked her to do some, some physical engagement about just kind of playing through different personas of her life, literally from when she was a child all the way through to who she is now. And in the conversation, and a little bit of the physical enactment, she discovered that she had so many powerful personas from her life story. Someone who had sailed single handedly, in some big races, someone who had been an intrepid explorer, someone who has had loved poetry, and who had been so passionate about it and had kind of left it behind, and so on and so on. So as we started accessing those different personas, her entire sense of the different voices in herself that had just been dormant and forgotten, started to reignite. She got very excited about this. And simply started to allow herself to really give voice to a much bigger range of her own expressive powers. So that was one very exciting story. Her voice literally shifted before my ears and eyes as she started remembering parts of herself throughout her life. Another very interesting story and a very moving one was of a leader I worked with who was in who was in engineering. And he told me a great story about how a sibling of his had had a very debilitating, life threatening disease as a child and how a bio engineer had created a device that saved his sibling’s life, and how that story, how that experience inspired him so much that it catapulted him into a life’s calling into bio engineering, and became, for him, the kind of Hallmark story of how bio engineering could serve humanity. And it became a calling card for his own leadership. So these are some examples and there are so many more.

LC: Fantastic examples, really fascinating Diana, they sound really transformational for those two people. You made me think about the value of, say, your life story versus your career story. Is that something that’s important and I’m thinking surely your career story is key? Is that the one you have to get right?

DT: I love that, you know that the getting it right is so much the kind of ongoing directive that we all face, certainly in corporate life, we have to get it right. And because of that, I think an awful lot of leaders get into the habit of leading a CV version of their lives, and that I have to get the career story right. Whether that’s for the next promotion, whether that’s for the kind of vision I want to shape, for the impact on the organisation I want to make, or whether it’s simply have to get my story right in terms of my career for that next big role I’m going to play if I’m in transition. But of course, that leaves out a whole other story, which is who I am as a whole, integrated being. And I think integration is the key to authenticity. So if you were to imagine looking at a lifeline, sorry, or a timeline, if you will, just marking out a long timeline on a piece of paper of key events of your life, and then doing the same with your career story, what are some of the key moments of my career, maybe they’re key successes or turning points, you know, very, very powerful experiences. Failures, successes, whatever those might be, and if you line up those two timelines you’ll start to see some extraordinary connections between what shaped you in your life experiences and how they were leveraged in your career story, and the other way around. And I think what happens when those insights are surfaced, there’s a really much, much more powerful and much clearer story that can be leveraged to get your career story or your leadership story right. Because it integrates who you are, in the whole sense of your humanity.

LC: Very interesting. So I suppose the key word there, Diana is integration that you mentioned a few times. And it made me think for somebody who really wants to do this, are there some tools and some ways that people could access and craft their stories to leverage them.

DT: There are loads and loads of fantastic exercises and tools out there. I certainly have a lot of them in my book ‘Performing as you’ under lead from your story. And things like storyboards, a lot of us know about storyboards, we use them for PowerPoint presentations or pitches, try using a storyboard about your own life. Not only is it a creative and enjoyable exercise, but by creating just a series of storyboards and giving them titles, you can start really unpacking many, many more moments, it helps you to remember so I’m a big believer in making things visual in order to help remember. Another thing you can do is what I just suggested, just draw out those timelines and start giving your timelines different kinds of criteria. Maybe it’s decades, maybe it’s key events, maybe it is just moments of success or dark moments, light moments, epic moments, whatever you want to call them, or key inspirational moments. You can start really experimenting with any of these tools to aid your memory. Another thing you can do is simply just hone in on one small story, anything, it might be a story that you’re currently using, in some way, and just distill it, you know, just give it a title, call it something so that it really captures your own imagination and makes an impact on you. And then just be able to distill it into one sentence. What’s this story all about? And then, what’s the message that this story has offered to me as a kind of gift of insight, and therefore it might be a gift of insight to other people. I think with any kind of exercise you do, with any kind of tool, you are ultimately accessing your own stories, not only for your own integration and wholeness and if you like your brand, as a leader, but your stories are always in service to other people. They’re not about blowing your horn, they’re about being in service to others. So the more alignment and authenticity and value you can find in your own stories, the more they will serve others and inspire them to step into their bigger selves, because they have found ways of tapping into those powers from their own lives.

LC: That’s really, really interesting, Diana, thank you for those thoughts. I’m a little bit conscious of time. There’s a couple of other areas I’d just like to explore with you by way of bringing our conversation to an end. If I may, Diana, in my experience of working with organisations and helping people with their development, people in leadership roles often look externally for answers and solutions to make them feel more confident and competent as leaders. So, you know, going on a course or reading a book, and I guess what you’re saying is that by looking inside ourselves to what we already have, and the paths we’ve already trodden, is a really valuable source of development too.

DT: Yeah, absolutely. Like that wonderful, mythological hero’s journey, you know, what we bring back to our organisations, when we go on this exploration of our story is a much more powerful, deeper self knowing. And if you think about it, you know, today, leaders are constantly adapting and adjusting to environments while also seeking something larger, something that can bring people together. They’re dealing with uncertainty and complexity and multi channel change all the time. But throughout all of that flux and uncertainty, there’s one thing that’s constant and that is the who we are and how we bring ourselves forward into that environment, into that world. So, the more a leader can literally feast on his or her life, in the words of the great poet Derek Walcott, the more you can feast on your life and let your life speak, the more you are grounded, the more you are centred, the more you are valuing yourself and those around you. I think it’s an enormous compassion and humanity project to go on this great adventure of reawakening and rediscovering again and again, yourself, your own self knowledge, because it’s not fixed and finite. There’s always something, there, beckoning new insights and new messages. So it’s an ongoing process. We are, all of us, works in progress.

LC: So, Diana, as we bring our fascinating conversation to a close today, in summary, what would you say that leading from your story can bring to enhancing the performance of today’s leaders?

DT: I think what it brings, ultimately, is that powerful alignment to one’s own sense of meaning and purpose. And without that, we’re not leading.

LC: Thank you so much for your time, Diana, and we’ll speak again with you soon.

DT: Thank you Lester. I’ve really enjoyed the conversation.

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