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In the Applied Leadership Seminar we talk about how leaders shape a future for their organization through the conversations they have and the things they choose to talk about.  Our conclusion is that in order to create a future one needs to talk about it.  Simply stated, conversations about the past will tend to keep one in the past, conversations about the present will create little more than sameness, but conversations about the future might unlock a possibility that can be nurtured to a new reality for the person and/or the organization.

One of the constraints we discuss is how a leader’s self-story can often limit their view of what’s possible.  A self-story is an image that we have of ourselves—a filter through which all conversations occur.  It is typically entirely subjective.  It is a narrative through which we experience life—in which we are both actor and author.  We explain our lives and communicate them through these stories.  As we keep telling our story it becomes an irrefutable fact.  Neuroscientists have discovered that the brain retains memories through the same synaptic processes regardless of whether an event was real or imagined.  Meaning, overtime we cannot distinguish in our stories between what actually happened, what we adopted from someone else’s story, or what was a product of our imagination.

Thus, self-stories can be problematic because they are formed from perceptions of past experiences, interpreted for the present, and anticipated for the future.  They can bind us to a past that can lead us to an erroneous view of ourselves in the present and ultimately blinds us to new opportunities both current and future. Additionally self-stories can cause tension with others when the self-story of the individual is inconsistent with others’ view of the person.

Amazing research was reported in March of this year by a prestigious group of psychologists.* They monitored the self-stories of 116 people, starting by recording each person’s self-story and then assessing their state of wellbeing two to four years later.  Just as one frames a conversation there were pervasive perspectives that framed the lens through which self-stories are created and filtered. They observed that four “master frames” tend to permeate throughout the self-stories of Americans at various times.  (It is believed that other cultures may have different master frames). These are:

• The ‘Fighter” – views of victories and defeats over a lifetime of battles.

• The “Redeemer” – when one regains a former glory or emerges from adversity, e.g., rags to riches.

• The “Relator” – when one sees themselves as either totally self-sufficient and alone in the world, or connected to a community of supportive relationships.

• The “Loser” – the victim who consistently misses one opportunity after another.

The conclusions from the research are stunning.  Those who approached their self-stories from the frame of “Fighter” and “Redeemer” at the beginning of the study period achieved a higher quality of life than those with “Loser” frames.  Those using the “Relator” frame were better able to successfully deal with challenges they encountered in their lives throughout the study.

Research has demonstrated that we can change the frames in our self-stories both present and past.  The starting point is to become aware that we have one.  Once awareness is achieved we can shift the self-story and open the door to new potentials.  This is referred to as “re-framing” and includes the following steps:

• Think deeply and ask yourself why you keep telling the story that you created.

• Consider what you could lose or gain from changing the frames in your story.

• Explore options to change how the frames could be viewed, e.g., is there a “Fighter” lurking in a “Loser” frame if we gave ourselves a chance to see it?  Or, are there people around us who have offered us support and have been a part of our lives, i.e., can we see ourselves in more “Relator” frames?

• Choose the frames you think will best enable the future you desire; discard the rest.

• Veto the old frames when they come into your mind from time to time.

Bottom line:  With awareness you can release yourself from the limitations of your past self-stories and empower yourself to be in control of your future.  You can in fact become a leader in your own life. Leaders are in control of their futures – they are not limited by their past or the stories they tell about themselves.

*I have converted the authors’ academic descriptions to language more commonly understood.  Adler, J. M. et al, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2015, 108(3), pp. 476-496

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