Social scientists are increasingly using narrative research to more accurately capture the stories of the individuals we study. For leadership researchers who strive to eventually predict outcomes such as leadership emergence, leadership effectiveness, follower satisfaction, trust, and performance, narrative research allows additional insight into the stories of potential leaders. In our earlier blog about seeing leadership moments, we discussed how small moments of leading can impact our leader identity. Narratives are a way for leaders to reflect upon past and present events, and could lead to additional leadership discoveries.
In Torrill Moen’s (2006) article on the narrative approach, she recalls how another social scientist, Edward M. Bruner, highlights how narratives can relate to one’s life.
“A life lived is what actually has happened. A life experienced consists of the images, feelings, sentiments, desires, thoughts, and meanings known to the person whose life it is. A life told is a narrative or several narratives influenced by the culture conventions of telling, by the audience, and by the social context.” (Moen, 2006; p. 63).
The leadership life told includes the social aspects of leadership – others’ reactions to you as a leader can help solidify or undermine your leader identity. But only the leader knows of the experiences that drive their behaviors. Writing a narrative helps the leader to reconcile personal thoughts and beliefs with the reactions of others.
As leadership professors, we can require our students to write their own leadership narratives and to build reflection into our coursework. The challenge for working leaders is to find time to continue this process. The active nature of reflection upon a narrative allows leaders to be more mindful about the effects of their leadership behaviors. Additionally, it may uncover additional opportunities for development or patterns of behavior that should be reviewed. Consistently taking the time to reflect ensures a closer match between the life lived, the life experienced, and the life told.
So, how do you start writing your narrative? And how do you ensure it is capturing what it should capture? A good narrative relies on the following foundation:
This spring, I have asked my students to collect narratives of leaders they observe. I encourage our readers to also start writing down your leader narratives, thinking through your experiences, including the context, and taking the extra step of capturing as many voices as possible to enhance your leadership development. I think you will all find that the time you take for reflection will result in more mindful leadership emergence.