This month’s challenge has two parts: reflecting on your life as it is being lived out (i.e. your personal identity), and then digging deeper to take historical, cultural, and political factors into consideration (i.e. your social identity). If the first part is about identifying the signposts on your life-path, the second is about seeing that path winding through the map of its cultural and political context. All links are included at the end of this article to reduce distraction while still providing rabbit-holes (and citations).
Part 1: Developing your ‘life narrative’
This exercise draws directly from an article in The Leadership Quarterly we read in my MIT class ‘Leading Creative Teams’. It talks about different types of leadership (we’ll get more into that in upcoming months), asserting that one trait common to all outstanding leaders is how they respond to crises.
Leaders are able to “move beyond description of current system operations to prescription of a system as it could be. In other words, outstanding leaders have the ability to to conceptually combine and reorganize descriptive mental models to design an actionable plan as to how to deal with a given crisis.”
How can we develop that skill? Well, the authors state that being able to identify, make sense of, and communicate our “life narrative” helps us with forming the “prescriptive mental models” necessary to move forward. In stringing together and contemplating your story, it helps to focus on the individual beads: key life events that defined or shaped you in some way. The authors identify six kinds of events:
- Originating events mark the beginning of a path, and are often associated with long-term goals.
- Turning points revise a life direction.
- Anchoring events signal what you value or want to avoid.
- Analogous events remind you of a structurally similar past event.
- Redemptive events are when bad situations are re-viewed as having a positive effect.
- Contaminating events are the opposite, a once-positive event gone sour.
The first bit is easy.
1. Using the six types as a guide, start jotting down what bubbles up in your mind as your own defining events.
2. Take the time to craft the story of each event and why falls into a particular category (if you think there’s a category that ought to be on this list but isn’t, feel free to adapt this exercise to your needs). If you want to be super geeky about it, I highly recommend Knight Lab’s Timeline JS tool for its ease of use and beautiful results.
Now for the more difficult challenge.
Part 2: Mapping your cultural and political geography
The Queen’s Young Leaders course, Leading Change, begins with an exercise similar to the one above, but also includes part of a mini-course piloted last year called the Alt-Commons. Crafted by Karen Salt, a history professor and QYL tutor who relishes difficult questions, it compelled us to think deeply about the cultural and political geographies that shape our values and sense of self in ways that we do not necessarily control (but that we can and should be highly attuned to).
I thought it to be an extremely valuable second step of the identity-mapping process, so I’ve adapted parts of it to serve as a deeper dive into developing our life narrative. Here, we look not only for defining events, but also places and people and habits and artefacts, as well as the ties that connect us to them.
Let’s get started.
A. Your cultural geography
1. Write your name in the middle of a large piece of paper or on a white-board. Alternatively, you could get visual, using photos or video to work through this exercise, or record yourself talking.
2. Consider the cultural connections in your community that seem strongest to you. ‘Culture’ can have as broad a meaning as you wish: people, locations, events, objects, habits, traditions, social expectations and identities are all fair game. Jot down whatever comes to mind, but start identifying which ones have the strongest pull on your sense of self. (Note: ‘strongest’ does not necessarily mean ‘most positive’.) If you live or have lived in multiple places that ‘ground’ or pull at you, reflect on how you feel attached to all these pieces. Work your way outward, from connections that feel central to those that are more peripheral.
Once you’ve written them down, you may need to take some time to visually re-arrange how they exist in relation to you and to each other.
3. Take a moment to consider the nature of the connections that link you to these people or objects or events. Are they strong, durable connections that endure when you are not physically present in your community, or would you happily discard them if you could? Are they cyclical, or seem particularly potent at some times more than others? If you simply drew a line from [yourname] to [yourculturalconnection], think about how you might notate the lines themselves.
4. How do these connections make you feel? Are there links you wish were stronger, or ones you’d prefer to discard? What keeps these connections in the particular constellations and with the particular gravitational pull that they do now? You may notice your values emerging as you work through and describe these feelings and what prompts them. Where and how would you like to position yourself? Are there connections that you want to bring into existence?
Get writing, scribbling, recording – whatever helps you process.
(And when you’re done, now is probably a good time for a break.)
Now. Let’s get political.
B. Your political geography
1. Write your name in the centre of a new sheet of paper, or start a new video/audio recording. What entities or locations best represent your politically? In short, what’s your political core? This can be as explicit or implicit as you wish. Karen Salt puts it really nicely:
“Too often, we tend to not see politics as a lived theory—a compilation of eating, breathing, doing, existing, voting, living, loving or even simply being.”
2. Move into the realm of your closest cultural connections – family, friends, colleagues, and institutions. What are their political spheres and how might you characterise their political links? Strong? Flexible? Weak? Domineering? Strategic? How often do you interact with their spheres and in what ways? Could you exist or work without them?
3. Work your way through your more peripheral connections – people, spaces, objects, events. Do they intersect or exist in tension with your core politics? Are you able to operate between them? Are they in conflict? Think also about where you want to go, and what connections you would like to strengthen or create.
4. Finally, compare your two maps. Are there links between the two, and what do those links look like? Are they people, places, traditions, emotions? How do you manage these connections and keep them alive? What more do you feel you want or need to manage them?
(You’re probably due for another break now, and a bit of binge-watching of something mindless.)
There are a few more steps to this archeology of the self, but digging into yourself is admittedly hard work. Next month, we’ll use this map to think about values, how our sense of self bumps up against the rights and values of others, and how your work as a leader can and/or does address this.
For now, think about how this has reconfigured how you see yourself. If you’re still saying, “I’m a Sinhala Christian university-educated middle class woman from Moratuwa,” I will throw a wet sponge at you and ask you to try again.
Also, if the thickness of those cultural and political lines makes you feel a bit puppet-like, please don’t be discouraged. Just remember, the more aware you are of them, the more you can work those strings.
Good luck, friend.
I know, I know. Things got serious fast. But I’m a serious person, and we live in interesting times. I also just think it’s impossible to be a truly great leader without real self-awareness, the kind that extends beyond TED talk-esque “I do what I do because my dad gave me a Lego set on my fifth birthday,” to what made it possible for my dad to gift me a Lego set at all. In my case, it intersects factors including my parents’ upbringing during Mrs B’s grand socialist experiment of the 70s, their views on generosity and education, and a civil war in Sri Lanka that meant I was born in a country where one could buy giant Lego sets in the early 90s.
I know this month’s challenge might feel a bit much, but if you could let me know what you think of it once you’ve read the March entry as well, I’d be super grateful.
My personal challenge
I’ve noticed that I’ve fallen into the habit telling the same tired old stories about myself and my work, and I’d like to dig out things that are more subtle, less sound bite-y, and certainly more uncomfortable. I did both parts of this challenge last year, but mostly in writing… this year, I really want to get visual. I will also stock up on tissues in anticipation, and I will not necessarily share all my findings. You don’t need to, either.
Source-nods and rabbit holes:
- Article: “Development of outstanding leadership: A life narrative approach in The Leadership Quarterly 19 (2008), 312-334
- The Knight Lab’s Timeline JS
- The incomparable Karen Salt
- …and her own inspiration for the Alt-Commons course: The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study, by Fred Moten and Stefano Harney
- Terry Pratchett’s Interesting Times (I just think you should read it)
- A glimpse into my parents’ (sometimes terrifying) abundant attitude to life
This post is the second in a 12-part series discussing topics around leadership and self-development.