What’s Your Leadership Narrative?

As a leader, it’s painfully easy to be misinterpreted. Some people aren’t paying that close attention to you; they’ll take a few impressions and haphazardly fill in the blanks. Others may overanalyze or try to “read tea leaves” that may not even exist. If you want your message to get out intact – whether it’s about who you are as a leader, or the vision you have for your company – you need take a step too few executives bother to do: create your leadership narrative.

As I recount in my new book from Harvard Business Review Press, Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future, when Toby Johnson graduated from West Point, her first job out of college was the furthest thing possible from entry-level paper-pushing: she became an Apache helicopter pilot, the only woman in a class of 30 trainees. Her performance – over seven years in the Army, including a tour in Iraq – won raves. She was lauded by her supervisors and was even featured in an Army advertising campaign. But when she decided to leave the military to attend business school, she faced one big disadvantage compared to her classmates, many of whom entered with corporate experience: “The only big organization I’d ever worked for was the United States Army.”

So how do you compete for job offers with talented peers who have clear, compelling stories to tell about their time in the corporate world? After all, flying a helicopter may not seem directly relevant to corporate success. Toby knew the lessons were transferable, but she’d have to connect the dots for potential employers. Her mission was to create a narrative that both made sense and captivated them. “I used my military experience as an advantage,” she says.

She had to craft a story that made sense to skeptical hiring managers, stressing the management experience she’d gained in the military (at 24 years old, she was in charge of eight $30 million Apache helicopters, plus the 30 people who managed them) and the rapid learning made possible by her early leadership experience. Many of her peers, trying management out for the first time, wouldn’t yet have found their unique style – and could make some costly mistakes in the interim.

In other words, Toby took charge of her story and ensured that what was clear to her (she’s building on her management and leadership experience and taking it to a new arena) was also understandable to others (who might otherwise question what a helicopter pilot could bring to a corporation). Her strategy worked; today, she’s a fast-rising executive at a multinational consumer goods company.

Similarly, all executives need to think through fundamental narrative questions, for themselves and their companies: where did we start, where are we going, and how are the lessons we learned making a difference in that journey?

You don’t have to have a leadership narrative; plenty of executives and companies get by without one. But what they’re missing is the sense of meaning a narrative can bring. It shows how our past, present, and future connect – an arc that makes sense of everything we’ve experienced before. And perhaps the most inspiring and comforting message a leader can give is that our past hasn’t been for naught; the lessons we’ve learned can help us find the way forward.

This post originally appeared on the Innovanomics blog on April 7, 2013.

Dorie Clark is CEO of Clark Strategic Communications and the author of Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future (Harvard Business Review Press, 2013). She is a strategy consultant who has worked with clients including Google, Yale University, and the Ford Foundation. Listen to her podcasts or follow her on Twitter.