How senior government practitioners can use their experience and leadership stories as mentors, coaches, teachers, and exemplars to help grow other leaders.
A leadership generation in the public service will shortly pass the baton, but few freshly-prepared leaders are ready to run the next leg of the race. Coincident with a new administration, well over one-half of today’s senior federal executives are ready to begin the next phase of their lives. Retirement projections are notoriously imprecise. Yet, according to the Office of Personnel Management’s statistics and historical patterns, two of three senior executives will likely leave federal service in the next five years. Many of these current leaders are in the very agencies where policy and program changes are on the nation’s agenda.
This is the “quiet crisis” of1eadership that Warren Bennis calls perhaps the least understood crisis of our times, occurring in all sectors of the developed world. Bennis maintains that we don’t yet know what the effect will be as this generation of leaders moves on, nor do we really know how to grow a next generation of1eaders who need new capabilities and a deeper reflection of enduring character qualities for what Peter Drucker calls a “time of great change.”
Despite the widespread acknowledgment of this pending leadership crisis, we do know that far too few government agencies have prepared themselves or their future leaders for succession or for these unprecedented changes. We also know two things that can be of immediate value in preparing the next generation of public service leaders, but only if acted upon.
The Lessons of Example and Experience
First, we know through benchmarking, that in the organizations that have a track record for growing leaders of character and capability, it is senior leaders, themselves (not the training shops or human resources offices), who assume the responsibility for preparing the next generation.
Second, we know that leaders are grown not by the lessons of the “classroom” but by the lessons of experience–lessons gleaned from challenging and varied job experiences and from significant relationships built with senior leaders (both good and bad). It is through these impact experiences and significant relationships that practical leadership capability is learned and where character is observed and shaped in the crucible of reality.
These senior leaders that beget other leaders play a role of “exemplar,” of “coach,” of mentor,” and even of “teacher.” They give their time and wisdom to help make meaning and learning out of experience and observation.
We also know that senior leaders in the “best practice” organizations have beneficially employed at least one common thread that ties together these two absolutely fundamental principles: the lessons of experience and significant relationships with senior leaders.
Most of us can remember lying in bed and having an older person read us a bedtime story. We were whisked away to places we could only dream of. Or we may remember sitting around a table after a meal and listening to our parents or grandparents tell stories that helped us understand a bit more about who they were and where our family came from and what we believed in. One of the great joys of growing older (yes, there are some) is sharing these stories with the next generation that hasn’t heard them.
There is no doubt about it, stories are both heart warming and memorable. But perhaps what we don’t understand is why we are able to remember favorite stories so well and why they are one of the most useful tools for leaders to have in their toolkits.
In my work with leaders of all stripes and in almost every government organization, I have come to the conclusion that many senior executives do not appreciate either their responsibilities or their capabilities to help grow the next generation. I also believe that we probably don’t appreciate the tremendous value of stories in developing leadership, nor do we realize how many meaningful leadership stories we have that are just waiting to be told. Storytelling isn’t a gift reserved for the imaginative few.
Stories and Our Brain
A good place to start understanding how important stories are to leadership would be to begin with our brains.
In today’s world, data overwhelms us and access to information practically engulfs us. The initially hopeful advent of the knowledge worker and the learning organization sometimes seems a cruel joke played by a vengeful Hal.2 It is in this changing world of work that stories have the strong attraction of a simpler time and a clearer message.
More importantly, what researchers in the field of artificial intelligence (AI) are discovering is that the way in which our brains actually work may be different than what we had previously supposed. To replicate the human brain with a computer, AI specialists have been trying to find out how we actually store and retrieve the immense amounts of information that come to the synapses of our brains every day, and why and how we “trash” other information.
What their discoveries reveal is that we don’t file information in topical “files” in the way that a word processing computer program might (or an old-fashioned filing cabinet). Rather, information is “filed” in its context and retrieved in a context as well in the form of stories that become integrated with others into parables.
What they have also found is that when we receive information in the form of bulleted lists, much like a PowerPoint presentation or a strategic plan, we sort this information and discard most of it. Hence, the “recency-primacy effect,” wherein we are more likely to remember the first and last items on the list and maybe an item which had a powerful emotional impact. The rest we discard to “trash,” likely never to be retrieved. So what?
How Stories Are Used
The “so what” is that learning organizations, knowledge organizations, and the other contemporary forms of organized human activity, including government bureaucracies, are using stories as powerful leadership learning “technologies.” What is being rediscovered is what cultures have known for millennia–stories are a powerful, indeed irreplaceable method used by vibrant organizations and superior leaders.
In the “best practice” organizations, senior leaders use stories to shape and to convey strategic plans (3M), to communicate their culture and core character values (Herman Miller), and to grow leaders as senior leaders teach the next generation (PepsiCo). While each of these is interrelated, let’s focus on the latter, how stories can be used to help prepare the next generation of leaders.
Public service leaders, primarily today’s senior executives, may have the perhaps unrecognized responsibility of growing the next generation, but absent a well-conceived and strategically-employed succession process, they often lack a framework for carrying it out. Unfortunately, few federal agencies have yet come to grips with this need for managing succession strategically.3 Given all the “urgent” in-box imperatives that compete for the time of a senior public servant, the “important,” namely, the growing and developing other leaders, often gets overwhelmed. Where do you start?
Realistically, senior leaders need to begin with their calendars. In Noel Tichy’s work with executives in the private and public sectors, he found that those who blocked time for the important task of growing others’ careers set an example in the use of time that clearly conveyed their priorities and allowed for the necessary relationships to be built. Most of us would be shocked if we were to seriously review our calendars for the past 30 days and see how little time we devoted to growing the next generation.
To mentor, to coach, and to teach others takes protected time. Personal reflection and self-awareness precede any priority action on these time commitments. Check it out and see for yourself. It may motivate you to begin to block time each week.
So, once time is set aside, where are senior leaders to find their stories and how should they be used?
A leader’s story conveys the lessons of experience–theirs and others. Its power is that a story wraps the two central facets of leader learning, character and capability, into a memorable and practical package ripe for action.
In finding your own
stories of where you learned to lead, you might want to take a large piece of paper and draw a timeline horizontally through the center. Begin with your earliest remembered childhood days and end with today–the larger proportion being in the working career years. Then both above and below that line, record the highs and the lows of your life and career. What were the events and situations that produced in you the greatest (or least) energy, the most satisfaction, the most disappointment, the greatest challenges, the worst mistakes, the best teamwork, a memorable person, etc.
Use these as a starting point. It is from both the so-called highs and lows of life and work that we draw lessons and form the basis for stories that pass on that learning.
An additional way to go about it is to prime the pump using story “prompts.” I have provided 10 basic leader story prompts in the accompanying box, but add your own.
With some key story ideas in mind, you are ready to start, writing a few down in the next weeks. It can turn into a lifetime leadership learning habit of your own learning from experience.
Leadership Story Prompts
- Can you remember a time when you worked for a really lousy boss?
- Can you tell about the first time you ever led a team, a project, or an organization and suddenly realized how much you didn’t know?
- Was there ever a time that you felt you failed in a job badly, or perhaps were fired or relieved?
- Did you have a time in your career when you worked with a team that accomplished well beyond what you or anyone may have expected?
- Was there ever anyone early in your life, perhaps a parent, grandparent, aunt or uncle that passed on a lesson which you continue to apply to this day?
- Did you ever go through a personal crisis that helped you realize and begin to live out important values that may have been previously obscured to you?
- Did you ever take part in an event where you felt you put your career on the line?
- Were you ever confronted with a choice to live out your values and you made the wrong choice? The right choice and paid a price?
- Was there ever a time you felt you couldn’t go on or were about to give up?
- Did you ever do something that no one knew about but which gives you a great sense of accomplishment today?
Recording Your Leadership Stories
Stories have a very clear pattern to them that ensures both learning and interest. The best way to develop stories is, of course, simply to tell them to someone. There is apparently something in the telling and retelling of stories, researchers have found, that allows us deeper understanding and a better memory of the events and the lessons. Telling stories isn’t natural to all of us.
A basic format for stories can be a useful means to take a key situation from the “highs and lows” or from a prompt and turn it into a story with lessons for the future. Essentially a story has five parts to it, normally in the following order.
Use this merely as an outline to jot down a few thoughts under each component. It’s really not necessary to write it all out. These are connected parts, meant to be told aloud to one person or to a roomful. Try sharing these with another person, using a tape recorder, or just telling yourself the story in your head.
What you might want to do is to have several story ideas in mind that you work on from time to time and keep in a spiral notebook. The purpose here is not to form the basis for your novel or for writing your memoirs, but to begin to appreciate with deeper understanding how you as leader have been shaped by the lessons of life. Once we have a deeper understanding of how we have learned to lead, two things will happen.
First, you will begin to see that you not only have learned much, but that you have much to pass on–a leadership legacy if you will. Second, you will begin to observe events and situations that you encounter with more of a “leader’s eye,” a capacity for real insight about what is being learned and how it relates to other “stories” that form “parables” for others. This then leads to living out the role of a leader who grows the next generation: a leader who has a greater commitment and capacity to be a mentor, coach, teacher, and exemplar.
For many years, Odysseus was away from his young son, Telemachus, as he fought alongside Achilles at the gates of Troy and then traveled his long and perilous journey home. He returned to find that Telemachus was now a man in the best sense. The guardian to whom Odysseus had entrusted his son’s development had done his job well. That older man’s name was Mentor.
To be a mentor is to have a significant relationship, often with a younger person, over a long period of time to help him/her to grow and mature as a person and as a leader. This is a relationship of trust that is built by single bricks of time–lunch, racquetball, walks, and hallway conversations. It is the type of relationship that senior leaders can have with a few people and can even continue beyond retirement. In fact, not being a “boss” may enhance the quality of the trust and the openness of the conversations.
To be a mentor is to be honest about one’s experiences and even failings, not to be a fount of wisdom. Many patterns of life and leadership challenges recur. You will find that the lessons of your leadership stories now can be matched with the challenges of your protégé from time to time as your relationship grows. Also, simply listening isn’t a bad thing to do either. The two basic mentoring questions are something like these: what are your priorities? How can I help you?
The essence of mentoring lies in the depth and duration of the relationship. The essence of coaching revolves around shared experience. The coach is involved in “the game” with the people s/he is coaching. The coach intentionally and even strategically challenges others to take on experiences that will cause them to grow, to develop skills that may be nascent, and to take risks tempered by coaching questions that allow the protégé to solve the problem on his/her own. A coach will also help an aspiring leader to learn by reflecting on what has happened and giving feedback–good and not so good–and encouragement.
A leader’s stories can come into play for a coach in many situations. For example, almost any planning for a project involves thinking through possible options–stories convey how similar situations played out in your own career. Or, perhaps, there has been a parable, distilled from many stories that you have drawn in leading change or in resolving conflict on a hard-charging team. What are the parables you have come to rely upon?
The reality of uncertainty, difficulty, and even failure, as well as perseverance in the face of opposition and setbacks, are the lessons of experience that can allow others to grow and not give up. Your stories can help set the stage for both realistic learning and perseverance under pressure.
Teachers come in all sizes, but few leaders see themselves as “teachers.” Teaching, they often believe, is a role for trainers, the human resource folks, consultants, and gurus. Not leaders. Except that impression is simply dead wrong. The best leaders are not only the best teachers for the next generation. They are the ones who see that what is needed in the “classroom” is practical wisdom that embodies the best of theory. They not only see it, they act on it.
The “best practice” organizations have recognized this. Building on the principles of how adults learn (experientially, practically focused, reality based), these organizations design in-house leadership development programs that maximize this truth by engaging senior leaders as instructors, not tokens. While human resource development types are needed to provide the learning background and the administrative framework, the design of the “curriculum” content is best provided by those in the front lines of leadership. They simply understand better than most what competencies and character qualities are needed for the leaders of the future.
As a “teacher” your stories help to enlarge the understanding of participants. Stories provide an air of reality, and a sense of the nuances of leadership paradox that no text or clever consultant or trainer can provide. You will also find participants more willing to listen to practical wisdom and honest vulnerability, particularly if their learning “curriculum” is action learning: a real team project with the pressures of time and unfamiliarity.
Volumes have been written on leading by example. Suffice to say that when a senior leader turns his calendar around and begins to openly devote more time to the careers of others as a mentor, coach, and teacher, that bespeaks a person of character and commitment to others. One who cares about other people, one who demonstrates a belief in the importance of enhancing the gifts of people, and one whose focus is on the future—this is a leader who helps to grow the next generation.
Serving the Future
The leader who takes it upon himself or herself to invest time and energy in the lives of future leaders is living out what many have called the role of a servant leader. It is only such a leader who can be an effective and sought out mentor, wise coach, and respected teacher and one whose example others will want to follow. This leader doesn’t begin by telling stories but by living them. His or her life is the best story.
As one person told me about a leader who had shaped his life: “He 1eft his1egacy in the lives of others.”
Ray Blunt was a senior executive who spent 35 years in public service in the Air Force and the Department of Veterans Affairs, retiring in 1996. Since then he has served as a leadership coach, mentor, teacher, and consultant to a number of government organizations, and in the Excellence in Government Fellows Program. He previously authored articles on succession and leadership development in public service.
James Foster Robinson