March 28, 2017

How to use life stories to develop self-awareness

“On a cold January day in 1961, my father broke his ankle at work. I was seven years old at the time (…) My father, Fred Schultz, was stuck at home with his foot up for more than a month (…) Like so many others of his station in life, when Dad didn’t work, he didn’t get paid. His latest job had been as a truck driver, picking up and delivering diapers. For months, he had complained bitterly about the odor and the mess, saying it was the worst job in the world. But now that he had lost it, he seemed to want it back. My mom was seven months pregnant, so she couldn’t work. Our family had no income, no health insurance, no worker’s compensation, nothing to fall back on (…) Years later, the image of my father – slumped on the family couch, his leg in a cast, unable to work or earn money, and ground down by the world – is still burned into my mind. Looking back now, I have a lot of respect for my dad. He never finished high school, but he was an honest man who worked hard.”

Howard Schultz, Starbucks’ CEO and author of the book: Pour Your Heart Into It: How Starbucks Built a Company One Cup at a Time

For Starbucks’ CEO, the kind of leader he is directly related to the experiences he witnessed his father go through. His father was unemployed, physically hurt and without medical insurance, and this triggered a strong value of behaving ethically towards employees and ensuring their dignity and self-respect. Whether or not you believe Schultz fully succeeded at this task, by reflecting about his life and experiences such as this one, Schultz was able to learn about who he is and what he values: he became self-aware. This self-knowledge has surely been invaluable to his development as a leader and his impact on the organization.

Leaders who are self-aware know themselves: who they are and where they come from, what their strengths and weaknesses are, what they hold as valuable. Personality traits, interests, talents, and skills also fall into the category of self-knowledge that self-aware leaders possess. Becoming self-aware is a process that occurs through self-reflection, or purposefully dedicating time to ponder about who you are and how you relate to others.

A leader’s life story is a key source of information to generate such knowledge (Shamir & Eilam, 2005). When leaders reflect on the events that have shaped them as individuals and leaders, they can become aware of their mindsets, the values that drive their decisions and actions, and their capabilities and potential as leaders. Exploring their life stories, then, is a mechanism for leaders to recall, organize, and draw meaning about their character and identity, which can inform their current role as leaders. From a narrative perspective, a leader’s life story is a thread of experiences woven together (Sparrowe, 2005) in a way that mainly helps the leader explain three things: (1) whether he or she can and should be seen as a leader, (2) why he or she became a leader, and (3) how this transformation occurred.

How can leaders connect with their life stories and use them to increase their self-awareness?

First, it is important to carve time for self-reflection. Think about the story you tell yourself about who you are. Potential questions to consider are:

  • What events have been most impactful/defining in your life? (Identify at least three events that you can reflect upon and explore more deeply) What makes them salient?
  • What themes, beliefs, values, strengths, and/or shortcomings can you observe or draw from these events?
  • What words, phrases, or metaphors do you use to describe yourself in these situations/events?
  • How can you use this information now in your role as a leader?

These trigger events (Gardner, Avolio, Luthans, May, & Walumbwa, 2005) can be positive or negative in terms of outcomes, for example, the loss of a loved one, a job opportunity abroad that challenged and stretched the leader’s capabilities and self-perception, or witnessing a key social or political event.

Second, enlist the help of trusted others, such as a mentor, coach, or trusted colleague with whom to talk about what you have reflected upon and the insights/lessons learned. Information from others also serves as a source of feedback to gauge the accuracy of the self-information you gather.

Potential questions to consider:

  • If you had to tell this person your story in three acts, what would they be?
  • How do they perceive you? What values, strengths, or shortcomings do they see in you? How do these match (or mismatch) with the ones you identified?

Thinking about your life story can be a powerful way to discover resources and capabilities – as well as areas to improve upon – that are hidden in previous experiences. Discovering your trigger events can inform your path towards self-development and growth.

About the Author

Lisa Soto is the coaching lab manager and research intern in LeAD Labs. She is also an organizational consultant, certified coach, and training facilitator. Having worked with private and public organizations in Puerto Rico for more than a decade, Lisa has vast experience in human talent development, organizational design, work process improvement, coaching and emotional intelligence assessment for the workplace. Her executive coaching experience focuses on leadership development, with clients in the U.S., Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic. Additionally, Lisa has experience in outplacement coaching, as well as in training and mentoring new coaches. As part of her work with LeAD Labs, Lisa has coached international museum leaders. Lisa is a doctoral student in the Positive Organizational Psychology Ph.D. program at Claremont Graduate University, where she researches the impact of coaching as a leader development intervention.

Related Research

Gardner, W. L., Avolio, B. J., Luthans, F., May, D. R., & Walumbwa, F. (2005). “Can you see the real me?” A self-based model of authentic leader and follower development. The Leadership Quarterly, 16(3), 343–372.

Shamir, B., & Eilam, G. (2005). “What’s your story?” A life-stories approach to authentic leadership development. Leadership Quarterly, 16(3), 395–417.

Sparrowe, R. T. (2005). Authentic leadership and the narrative self. Leadership Quarterly, 16(3), 419–439.