In an exercise on leadership authenticity and transformational influence, I observed a group of four men and a woman, each sharing three stories about their personal identity. In the process, the woman had an extraordinary experience and she gave me permission to share the account. She is hopeful others might learn from it.
In her first story, she spoke of being on a dance team in high school. She was close to the adult advisor who was dying. She promised the advisor to keep the dance team moving forward. When the advisor died, no adult was willing to replace the advisor and the team was going to disband. This high school student confronted the athletic director and vowed to do all the tasks an adult advisor would perform. She eventually convinced him and the team completed the year. She declared that the unusual experience gave her great confidence that continues to carry her forward. The story was fully congruent with the persona she projected, a strong woman of great confidence.
When it was her turn to tell her third story, she took a deep breath. She looked at each person. She took another deep breath. She was making the decision to do something courageous.
As a young girl, she was greatly overweight. This led to ostracism and continuous ridicule. She lived in extreme social pain. As she described the pain, she was so present in the anguish that the rest of us felt it. At 13, she made a decision to change. She lost the weight. She became thin, attractive, and popular. She became captain of the dance team. She then obtained a great education, established a wonderful family, and enjoyed an impressive career. Despite these accomplishments, she has never been free from the history of being an inadequate, rejected, overweight girl. As she finished the story, I felt something happen, something inside her, and we could all see it. Then she said, “I have never before told that story.”
The next day, I approached her and asked if we could reflect together. She welcomed this and the following exchange took place.
I said, “As you concluded that story, I felt something. It was as if a new you popped out.”
She responded, “Yes. In that very moment, I transformed. I think telling the story yesterday is one of the most important things I have ever done.”
I asked, “What did the change feel like?”
She responded with a sense of joy: “I was liberated. I became free.”
Since then, I have been asking myself, free of what?
I have a hypothesis. This wonderful woman lived a childhood of painful rejection and shame. At 13, she made the amazing, conscious decision to change her life and then disciplined herself to lose weight. As captain of the dance team, she exercised the courage to do something that far exceeded conventional expectation. As an adult, she lived in patterns of accomplishment and success. Despite all this achievement, she continued to carry the pain of an overweight girl in a cruel world.
In a climate of trust, she found the courage to tell her story. In doing so, she was creating a new life narrative. She no longer needed to carry the pain. She could accept her currently emerging self as her authentic self. Her painful past no longer trapped her.
- Why does trusting interaction facilitate growth and produce freedom?
- What old identities are you carrying?
- Why do we all constantly need to construct a new life narrative?
- How can we use this passage to create a more positive organization?
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