Your Leadership Story: Use Your Story to Energize, Inspire, and Motivate

Your Leadership Story: Use Your Story to Energize, Inspire, and Motivate

by Tim Tobin


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Stories have power. They move people in a way that facts and figures can’t. Many leaders use stories as a tool, but leadership development expert Tim Tobin says most have no idea what tale their own leadership is telling. He shows how, by thinking of your career as a narrative—with a plot, characters, and an arc—you can increase your awareness of yourself as a leader and become more effective, insightful, and inspiring.

Using story as both a metaphor and a process for self-development, Tobin offers activities and questions that help you better understand your own leadership and how others perceive it. What is the plot of your leadership story—your overall goals and purpose? Who are the main characters and what roles do they play? How have the settings of your story influenced it? What are the conflicts that you need to resolve to move toward the ending you intend?

But you have to share your story to make it an effective leadership tool. Tobin gives detailed advice on framing your message, finding ways to communicate it, and understanding the role others play in furthering that message.

If you don’t tell your leadership story, other people will—and it may not be the story you want told. Taking control of your leadership story enables you to more consciously shape the impact you have in the world. You’ll be better equipped to make decisions, choose actions that tell the story you want to tell, make stronger connections to those you lead, and ensure that you become the kind of leader you want to be.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781626562943
Publisher: Berrett-Koehler Publishers
Publication date: 03/16/2015
Pages: 168
Product dimensions: 5.60(w) x 8.60(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Timothy J. Tobin, EdD, SPHR, is the vice president of Global Learning and Leadership Development at Marriott International. While at Marriott, he has earned the 2012 Bersin & Associates award for Leadership Development Strategy Excellence, the 2012 Chief Learning Officer award for Innovative Practice, and the 2013 Bersin & Associates award for Enabling High-Impact Learning.

Read an Excerpt

Your Leadership Story

Use Your Story to Energize, Inspire, and Motivate

By Timothy J. Tobin

Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.

Copyright © 2015 Timothy J. Tobin
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-62656-296-7


Just What Is Leadership?

In this chapter, I want to help you understand what I call the ecology of leadership. Obviously, someone cannot be much of a leader if no one is there to be led. So it's a delicate environment of projects, priorities, and plans as well as emotions, sensitivities, and ambitions.

President Eisenhower once commented, "Leadership is the art of getting someone to do something you want done because he wants to do it." Ike's approach to delegation could be called subtle. But to him, delegation was an important skill and a big deal. It surely served him well in Europe as he dealt with many big egos to lead the Allied effort in World War II.

A Word about Perceptions

Speaking of Ike, we typically don't think of him as having had a big ego. Supreme Allied commander, president of Columbia University, general of the Army, president of the United States. That's a résumé that would enable anyone's ego to balloon. But not Eisenhower. He was awesome and not awesome at the same time.

Likewise, it is important for all of us to understand how we are perceived by others and where that is consistent with our self-perceptions. If there is misalignment between the two, it is important to understand why that is. As the introduction implies, this book's process and steps are not intended to reaffirm to you that you are just so awesome right now. In a few paragraphs, you will meet Bob and watch his lunch mates tell him how not awesome he really is. It is a shocker for him.

What Is Your Leadership Story?

The truth is, you are only as good a leader as people think you are. That's hard to accept if you wear awesomeness on your sleeve. A self-review of your leadership would contain inherent flaws, and too often leaders attempt to rationalize their behavior. According to the book Leadership and Self-Deception, by the Arbinger Institute, leaders can blind themselves to their true motivations and capabilities. Without a review from others, it is unlikely that our self-perception is accurate—whether positive or critical. Rarely is our own perception exactly right. And that has implications for our ability to lead others effectively.

Our awareness and acceptance of our imperfections is the pathway to excellence. To that end, this book establishes a system of checks and balances to help you to truly understand who you are as a leader, based not only on your perceptions but also on the perceptions and interpretations of others. You may not like what you hear. It may not align with your self-image. But it is critical to fully understanding your story. Think of it this way: The value added is balance.

Your leadership story is the intersection between what you believe your story to be and others' interpretations. It is reflected in what you say and do as well as how others perceive and interpret what you say and do as a leader. And to add to the complexity, others' interpretations may not be accurate. Or worse, their motivations may not support your story.

This paradox of who owns your story is a constant struggle. Are you the primary author? Or does your story live in the interpretations of others? The answer is yes to both. If you do not take primary authorship of your story, it will be crafted exclusively through the perceptions of others. That will not be a very accurate autobiography. The following figure illustrates the importance of understanding and aligning your leadership story with the perceptions of others. It also shows the problems of being misunderstood.

Your leadership story currently exists somewhere within the quadrants above. Each is described in detail below. Your story can manifest itself positively or negatively in each of the quadrants. Your objective is to understand your leadership story, work to get it to where you want it to be, and make sure that others are aligned with it.


This is a difficult place for leaders to find themselves in. It suggests that others know you better than you know yourself. On a slightly positive note, leaders here do not believe in themselves, nor do they believe that they have great attributes as a leader, and this may show itself as being humble. But even humility has a dark side: over time, others will eventually not believe in you, either.

Jeff lived in Q1. Everyone thought he was great, but he was quick to deflect praise. He would always say, "No, no. I didn't do that. My team did." Noble indeed. People appreciated his humility, but eventually he convinced others that he really couldn't do it, and that fate became part of his story. In a sense, he wrote it himself.

Ben was a leader who ran into this challenge. He was viewed by many as humble. He did not take credit for his expertise and leadership capabilities. When others gave him credit, he was quick to deflect it and say, "Oh, I'm not sure I did that." He was admired by many, and then, over time, others began to question his abilities. It began simply enough, with a few peers and leaders saying, "I'm not sure," about his abilities. Although his story never left Quadrant I, it quickly transitioned from humility to a question of capability. He had effectively talked others into not believing in him. An adage comes to mind: If you believe you can't do something, you are probably right.

Another type exists in this quadrant. They are the leaders who are narcissistic, self-important, or overconfident. Leaders here think they are awesome—and they aren't afraid to let others know it through their words or actions. However, awesome is not how they are perceived by others. In either case, these leaders either are clueless or simply don't care how they are showing up as a leader. Your solution, if you find yourself to be in this quadrant, is to seek feedback and listen to others. You may find it beneficial to do a skills audit and to work on your executive presence.


Using the story as a metaphor, this quadrant is known as a leader's true story. Leaders in this quadrant have a good understanding of their leadership story, and others do as well. Leaders here are viewed as authentic—what you see is what you get. They are genuine. They know their strengths and areas for development, and they tend to be willing to enlist the support of others.

Even if these leaders' stories have negative attributes, they are aware of this and either take corrective action individually or are conscious of when and how to supplement their skills. But leaders here should not get too comfortable. If you find yourself in this space, you should continue to reflect, be self-aware, and enlist others to tell their story.

Randy may not have had all the answers, but he was willing to bring in others to help. He had great ideas, but he knew he wasn't an expert in everything. His go-to phrase was "What do you think?" You felt like you knew him on a personal level and that he cared about you. And he was passionate about the work he was doing.


Leaders here are, well, hidden. They have a good understanding of their story, but no one else does. Because others don't know who these leaders are, they tend to be overlooked.

If you know your story and it is negative, you may lack credibility and will have some work to do to become a better leader. If you know who you are as a leader and it is positive, you need to become better known as a leader. If you are in this quadrant, focus on building your network, get involved throughout the organization in projects and initiatives, and enlist others to tell your leadership story.

Jeremy was a leader who fit this description. He was new to the organization, fresh out of graduate school. He had a lot of bright ideas but no way of sharing them. It wasn't his style to aggressively assert himself, and he didn't want to come across as bragging or trying to take charge. But eventually he became frustrated. He and I worked on ways to build his internal network and get involved in projects to showcase what he was capable of.


These leaders are inconsistent and unclear at best; they are erratic and unreliable at worst. Just as in Quadrant I, such leaders lack self-awareness. They lack thought and reflection about who they are as leaders, what they value, and what they stand for.

Many leaders here have not taken the time to understand who they are or what they believe in as a leader. To make this quadrant more directly personal to you, no one else knows you or what you believe in, either. People may follow you because you are the boss, but they are skeptical and reluctant to do so.

If you find yourself in this quadrant, you should begin by understanding your leadership story. As a starting point, focus on what you believe in and value as a leader. The good news is that almost any action you take toward understanding, aligning, or communicating your leadership story is a step in the right direction.

Sam was an established leader within the organization, due in large part to his technical knowledge. Sometimes he wanted to get into the details and sometimes he didn't. He would assign tasks and follow up on some but not others. None of Sam's direct reports knew what to expect from him, nor did some of his peers. How do you think his team felt? He never thought about how this was affecting his team—creating low morale, poor performance, and a sense of uncertainty. Others viewed him as volatile and inconsistent.

Types of Leadership

What type of leadership do you want to master? What leadership style do you aspire to? You need to think about what type of leader you want to be. And here is the fun part about leadership: there is not one single best way to lead.

The choice is yours. Choose the kind of leadership, or combination thereof, that best suits you and that you aspire to. The purpose of this activity is not merely to increase self-awareness. It will help you to consider the ultimate goals of leadership so that you keep in mind the importance of your leadership for the greater good. The result will be a more meaningful goal—or set of goals—that brings fulfillment to you and those you lead.

There are many types of leadership. What does leadership mean to you? What is the role and purpose of a leader? As you think about your own definition of leadership, some of the words you used may have given you a clue as to what style of leadership you gravitate toward. Did you use words such as help or serve others? Did you talk about developing others? Do you look at leadership as a process? Is it interactive? With whom? As you think about the kind of leader you want to be, consider the various types of leadership described in the table below.

Toward a Balanced Leadership Story for You

This book is about getting your leadership story straight. It is about facing the realities of your leadership story from multiple angles. It is about understanding who you are as a leader and who you want to be. It is also about understanding and aligning your beliefs as a leader with the perceptions of others—that critical balance. In short, Your Leadership Story is about understanding, aligning, and communicating who you are as a leader.

Two Big Questions

Chapter 1 concerns two important questions, so let's try to answer them.


Many definitions of leadership exist—too many to mention here. What does great leadership mean to you? And what does it mean in the context of your organization?

Look around you at the various leaders you deal with regularly. What do they do that is inspiring? Uninspiring? There are plenty of examples of great leaders and bad leaders. Wherever you stand on the spectrum of great-to-poor leaders and whatever your definition of leadership is, I would have one question for you: How is that working for you? If everything is going perfectly, keep up the good work. For most leaders, there are opportunities for improvement somewhere in their skill set.

Despite the complexity of leadership, there seem to be some common attributes, skills, and characteristics among great leaders. Leaders have to be technically competent. But technical competence can be both a hindrance and a requirement to be a great leader.

I refer to technical competence as a critical part of your leadership foundation because you have to have technical competence and understand the business you are in before you can be a leader. At the same time, as you take on leadership responsibilities, you will have to let go of some of your technical responsibilities—that which got you here—in order to embrace leadership. You need to take time to understand the various aspects of the business you are in, the competitive landscape, and the operating environment in order to make good, fundamentally sound, and relevant business decisions.

Technical competence can be a barrier to great leadership for two reasons. First, being technically competent does not automatically ensure leadership competence. I have seen this firsthand on numerous occasions where a perfectly capable employee gets promoted into a leadership position and fails as a leader. Second, leaders with technical expertise may have a difficult time letting go of their technical responsibilities. I have seen leaders continue to spend time on aspects of their job that they should delegate. Great leaders need to focus on leadership.

Great leadership requires providing vision and direction. It requires motivating and inspiring people to work toward the vision. It requires developing other people. And it requires achieving results. In short, leadership is about people. Your ability to connect with people can make all the difference between great and poor leadership. Where this gets particularly complex is that different people have different needs, and those needs may shift over time, along with a host of other changing variables. Leadership is a dynamic, moving target that requires you to be thoughtful and prepared in your approach. Your leadership story serves as an anchor and foundation for your actions as a leader.

Great leaders have a plan, and also they are great improvisers. Just as a good actor has to improvise onstage if something unplanned happens, great business leaders, as improvisers, are the actor, writer, and director of their story. They must act in the moment. As writer, they must initiate ideas. And as director, they must provide a bigger view and facilitate room for ideas, creativity, and action.


You are the actor, writer, and director of your leadership story. You act in the moment, initiate ideas, provide a bigger view, and allow for ideas and creativity. Understanding and communicating your leadership story can be quite powerful. It provides clarity around what you stand for as a leader. It keeps alive the people, values, and life lessons that you hold dear. It gives you the power of influence and authenticity by allowing you to match your words and your actions. It allows you to build trust. Trust leads to credibility.

By helping you to understand what has shaped you as a leader, your leadership story can make the strong emotional connection that is necessary to inspire and motivate others. It can also be a useful tool with which to impart knowledge and lessons to others— to help them learn from the experiences that have shaped your leadership story. And it provides you and others with insights into what you hold important as a leader.

By understanding your leadership story, you will have greater self-awareness and fewer blind spots. It will also provide a starting point for you as you continue to develop as a leader. It will guide you in modifying your story so that you can be a better leader. When you effectively communicate your leadership story, you and others will have clarity about your expectations as a leader.

Leadership is a journey that involves the past, the present, and the future. Once upon a time, your leadership story was a blank page filled with hopes, dreams, opportunities, and inspiration. For many, those hopes and dreams included being a great leader. As you have realized some hopes and dreams, and have learned more through experience about what makes a great leader, perhaps new or revised ideas around being a great leader have sprung up.

What has contributed to the evolution of your notions about leadership? What has supported you in your personal quest to be a great leader? What has inhibited you from being your best? Looking ahead, what are you prepared to do to be the best leader you can be?

My six-year-old daughter recently told me something profound and relevant to understanding our leadership story. She said, "First you plant a seed. Then you nourish it. Then it sprouts. Then it grows. Finally, it turns into a flower."

Our nourishment for growth and development consists of reflection, action, and insights. Let's face it—we operate in a very action-oriented environment. We spend more time on action and results that reward us, and far less time on thinking and reflecting. Reflection is a process of understanding what happened and why. It creates self-awareness. A lack of self-awareness leads to blind spots, and at the least it puts you at a disadvantage as a leader.


Excerpted from Your Leadership Story by Timothy J. Tobin. Copyright © 2015 Timothy J. Tobin. Excerpted by permission of Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

I. Introduction a. Leadership Story Defined i. What Makes Great Leadership ii. Why Focus on Your Leadership Story iii. About This Book iv. How to Use This Book b. Framework for the Book i. What is the Role of Time?
ii. What Makes a Good Story?

II. Part I – Understanding And Aligning Your Leadership Story a. Define Your Plot b. Identify and Leverage Your Key Characters c. Prepare for Conflict d. Develop Your Theme e. Find Your Optimal Setting

III. Part II – The Art of Communicating Your Leadership Story a. Know Your Message b. Recognize Moments of Truth c. Know Your Audience d. Actions Speak Louder Than Words e. Enlist Others to Tell Your Leadership Story

IV. Conclusion

V. Resources a. List of Activities i. Activities To Do Yourself ii. Activities To Give Others b. List of Reflection Questions c. List of Tips

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