The future belongs to the best storytellers
"If your actions create a legacy that inspires others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, then you are an excellent leader.” – Unknown
The internet isn’t always a reliable place. In searching for a leadership definition that would speak to the fullness of the experiences of women leaders in the inaugural cohort of Tide Risers, this quote stood out. Among the myriad quotations from famous people, too often leadership was spoken of in relation to one’s title or position in government or in an organization. Too rarely, was leadership discussed in terms of what it unlocks for those who follow the leader, who are impacted by that one’s legacy. But these words struck me, even though it was unclear who said them. They were attributed to Dolly Parton, but also to John Quincy Adams. I scratched my head, but ultimately determined that the weight of these words wouldn’t be diminished simply because I couldn’t find their origin. Leaders matter for the legacy they leave to others, for the ways they inspire others.
I founded She Thinks Purple to help mission-driven women and organizations leverage storytelling to create radical change in the world. To “think purple” is to be consciously attuned to the power in human stories; for locked within our personal and collective narratives lives the potential for radical change. The future belongs to the best storytellers, and that’s why I created the Storytelling Essentials Experience for Women Leaders, or “SEE.” The acronym is intentional. To be inspirational and effective, leaders must see themselves for who they really are, courageously acknowledging their mistakes and triumphs and modeling authenticity without apology. Achieving this clarity is this first step toward creating a legacy that inspires others to dream, learn, do, and become more.
SEE for Women Leaders is a three-part, curated workshop series designed such that participants walk away with clarity, confidence, and community: Clarity around which elements of her leadership story inspire and resonate; Confidence in her ability to tell her leadership story with polish; and a Community of fellow leaders committed to igniting and fueling sparks in other women. Because I designed this experience with my fellow Tide Risers in mind, I was delighted to deliver a mini-workshop at the June UnstickHer session. We spent about 75 minutes together working on achieving clarity last Thursday, and here’s some of what we learned:
1. Our own lives, our personal stories, are texts worth examining.
We’re often encouraged to read leadership books, to pursue an MBA or other management degree, or to take expensive leadership development courses. All these activities have their merits, and may be invaluable in some sectors. But no less important is the time that we take to reflect on our own lived experiences with leadership, to see our lives as text (and the lives of other real women around us). Some of the women in our cohort had very early memories of leadership and influence, going back as early as age 3. Others can only remember being master manipulators. Still others had later but fully formed expressions of leadership that foreshadowed (so impressively as to be eerie) their current endeavors as entrepreneurs and kick*** business women.
2. We must be kind, patient, and brave with ourselves and others.
Getting clarity on the elements of our leadership story (how we’ve come to be who we are, what about our journey inspires and resonates with others, and how we’re evolving in our identity and practice as leaders) is hard work. The more years we’ve lived and the more we’ve done over those years, the harder it can be to mine our lives for the nuggets that are worth elevating and sharing. We must be willing to tell our truth, without adding undue pressure. Being kind to ourselves means not comparing our stories to other, and being OK with the messiness of the exploration process. Being patient means taking the time to stay in reflection for as long as it takes for us to find what we’re seeking. It also means that when others invite us into their process, we allow them to take the time they need without interfering. Being brave means that we push ourselves to go beyond the surface, that we’re willing to look in unexpected places to find the missing or hidden elements our leadership story that we may have forgotten or pushed aside. We might be willing to admit, for instance, that we were more confident dancing ballet as a pre-teen than we are currently in our adult life; that sometimes we step up to lead simply because we like attention; or that we never really saw ourselves as leaders but others kept seeing it in us, so we gave in. Some of the things we admit to ourselves aren’t pretty, but they are necessary.
3. Getting clarity is helpful, but it’s only the first step.
Through our clarity exercise, many of us discovered interesting elements of our leadership story that we wanted to further explore. We did lots of sharing and listening, but it took time. A peer put it this way, “I was struck by how much more comfortable it felt to share my story the longer we all were talking, but that’s not typical when meeting new people. If we’re going to tell our stories as part of how we introduce ourselves, how do we decide what details to share and how to shorten what we say?” Many echoed her sentiment. The simple answer is: practice. As we say our leadership stories aloud, as we practice sharing who we are in more authentic and connected ways, we start to understand which elements inspire and resonate. We stop falling for the bait, and stop answering the question, “So, what do you do?” no matter who asks. We know better. So, instead, we begin to steer our conversations toward the more inspirational stuff, that which will make others want to dream, learn, do, and become right along with us.
We did a lot in 75 minutes, but we all knew it wasn’t enough. Next year, She Thinks Purple will be partnering with Tide Risers to expand to a new city (DC) and to make SEE for Women Leaders a more embedded part of the experience. We couldn’t be more excited about this collaboration.
Danielle Kristine Toussaint, founder + CEO of She Thinks Purple, is a storyteller, strategist and social impact leader. She has been the writing pen behind op-eds and speeches for Huffington Post, Forbes.com, and TEDx. Danielle holds a B.A. in Political Science and African American Studies from Yale University and a M.S.Ed from the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education. She’s a founding member of Tide Risers and excited to expand the network to Washington, D.C. in 2019.
Photo credit: Unsplash