Like Neo from ‘The Matrix,’ we can only do great things once we tear down the fictional world our minds have embraced.
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We are all storytellers. For tens of thousands of years, we have told each other stories to bring us together to face a harsh and uncertain world. More importantly, we constantly tell ourselves stories. We selectively pluck facts from an overwhelming stream of experiences to weave coherent narratives with us as the protagonists. Our inner stories coalesce into what psychologist Dan McAdams calls our “narrative identities”, and we increasingly pay attention to data that confirm those stories, imaginatively filling in the gaps to maintain their coherence. As Jonathan Gottschall, author of The Storytelling Animal, concludes: “The storytelling mind is a factory that churns out true stories when it can, but will manufacture lies when it can’t.”
Stories shape people and people shape organizations. And, as leaders, the stories we tell others and ourselves shape our organizations more than anyone else’s. It is clear how leaders’outward storytelling, like Elon Musk’s vivid tale of colonizing Mars or Mandela’s story of an Apartheid-free South Africa, fuel collective action.
Yet leaders’ inward stories—the subconscious narratives that are rarely verbalized—sculpt their organization’s culture, people, and performance in several equally powerful ways:
Inner stories drive our decisions, actions and communication. Our self-narratives are the filter through which we interpret a team member’s mixed performance or customers’ reaction to a product launch. This nonstop selective interpretation shapes our decisions as much as or more than any conscious analysis.
Inner stories have an outsized effect on organizational culture. If you tell yourself wildly optimistic stories about the future, so will your team. If you weave self-narratives that place the blame on others for your failures, your team will follow suit.
Destructive stories undermine our ability to perform. We can’t deliver our best work when we are captured by stories rife with insecurity or negativity. These stories drain us, trapping us in unproductive rumination. And when we don’t bring our best selves, our team won’t either.
And there’s a fiendish twist to the impact of our inner stories. As these stories grow more consequential with our rise into leadership, it gets harder to keep them healthy and grounded. Self-narratives are much more likely to become warped when we are under intense stress. The greater the leadership responsibility, the greater the pressure, and so the greater the torque on our narratives.
At the same time, we have access to fewer mirrors to reflect the twisted reality of our stories back to us. In leadership, few people are willing to tell us emperors that we have no clothes so we become increasingly trapped in our little story worlds. Our organizations suffer as a result.
We know this from painful first-hand experience. We were 18 months into the first start-up we co-founded and everything was great: customers were applying to the business skills program in droves and raving about their experience. When a senior colleague began expressing doubt about the business model, we unconsciously focused our energy on defending our current path rather than exploring his concerns. The problem wasn’t our strategy, our inner stories told us, it was that this colleague didn’t believe in us as entrepreneurs. We were so consumed by this story that we eventually let him go. Six months later, the business collapsed: our success metrics proved as misleading as he had warned and we radically changed direction, laying off half the company.
If our inner stories as leaders are so vital and potentially destructive, what do we do about them? In short, we follow the same path as every fiction writer as they prepare a treasured manuscript for publication: we edit, over and over again.
Swallowing the Red Pill
But before we can edit, we have to take a first, critical step—we have to acknowledge our inner stories. This is far more difficult than it sounds. We all like to think of ourselves as rational beings. Sure, we get emotional at times, but our core judgments and decisions are driven by conscious, logical analysis.
But as Daniel Kahneman describes in his seminal book Thinking Fast and Slow, our rationalizing is just a veneer— post hoc justifications for beliefs and decisions that our subconscious produced. Unless we accept this fictive nature of our minds, we will always be blind to the way our stories distort our perception. As Timothy Wilson, professor at the University of Virginia and author of Redirect: Changing The Stories We Live By, highlights: “Rationalization works best when it is behind the scenes.”
Unmasking our stories is only the beginning. Like Neo from The Matrix, we can only understand and change how we have deluded ourselves once we have swallowed the red pill and emerged from the fictional world our mind has embraced. From there we have to walk through several other challenging steps to let go of our current narrative and construct a new, healthier story.
We don’t have Neo’s magic pill, but fortunately, we do have a toolkit of techniques that are proven to help people understand and transform their self-narratives. Yet even once you embrace the reality that your inner stories are critical to your teams’ performance, investing in these techniques can be daunting. So, for each set of tools, there are recommended simple steps to get started.
Coaching: Other people are often the best check on warped inner narratives. An honest, insightful friend or coach or therapist can hold a mirror up to the fictions woven throughout our narratives and support us to craft healthier versions.
Feedback: As leaders, the people around us often inadvertently reinforce our destructive fictions. We can overcome this critical blind spot by regularly gathering feedback and celebrating colleagues for their candor.
Get started by asking someone to run a 360-degree feedback process for you. They should both conduct a survey and interview your close colleagues, seeking to capture the hardest and most nuanced truths by directly asking what unhealthy narratives they perceive you telling yourself. Equipped with these data, ask a brutally honest colleague or coach armed with a broad perspective to act as your mirror and help interrogate your inner narratives.
Meditation: Our inner narratives are self-perpetuating cycles, entrenched and intensified by our constant rumination about them. Meditation breaks that cycle. By quieting our chattering inner storyteller, it can expose the origins and perversions of our narratives and reduce our attachment to them.
Structured reflection: Journaling provides an invaluable perspective on our inner stories. Researchers have found that regular, 15-minute writing exercises describing a personal event in the 3rd person or imagining our lives if a key event (e.g., meeting our spouse) didn’t happen significantly improves mental health outcomes.
Identity habit formation: We can invert the usual approach of first changing our thought patterns to then change our behavior. If we want to adopt a story that we are a generous person, we can start acting generously and, over time, our minds will adapt our narrative identities accordingly.
Get started by beginning regular journaling or meditation, even if for just five minutes at first. As you get deeper into the practice, focus your reflection on an inner story that you have about your work to uncover its distortions. At the same time, start building a habit that will, once it becomes part of your identity, counteract a destructive story you tell about yourself.
Breaking the Matrix
We often need to apply more than one of these techniques and repeat them for a frustratingly long time. In short, we need to approach editing our stories in the same way we overcome an addiction: with patience, persistence, and a constant focus on the person we want to be on the other side. Our stories are deeply entwined with the identities we have developed over decades. The path to changing them is long, hard, and messy, but as valuable as any other investment of our time as leaders.
Whichever of these techniques we chose, our success will be determined by a critical factor: our vulnerability, with ourselves and with others. Story-editing can be a deeply unsettling process. It forces us to recognize that as successful and skillful we have been, we remain fallible, irrational and insecure. It requires us to shake the foundations we have built our careers and lives on. If we are serious about improving as leaders, we have to embrace that discomfort and be ready to uncover hard truths about ourselves.
We launched a new company from the ashes of our first organization. Humbled by the destructive potential of our inner narratives, we invested significant time in feedback, coaching, and reflective practices even among the frenzied demands of a new venture. We still wrestled with gaps in our leadership. But we were able to guide the business through many more difficult moments by carefully assessing, and sometimes painfully editing, our inner stories and coaching our teams—and each other—to do the same. That company has thrived: it is one of the fastest-growing education businesses in Africa. Now, when facing a challenging leadership moment, we begin by asking ourselves one question: “How else can I tell this story?”