Briefing Notes: The Story You Tell About How You Became a Leader

Published: August 16, 2020

The 35th | a Relevance Edition


The stories we tell ourselves about ourselves (perceived or real) often shape how we think and act. The same is true with our leadership origin stories — the story about how we became the leaders that we are today.

How would you respond if someone asked when you first felt like a leader?

A recent study shows that despite having unique experiences, leaders’ stories cluster around four frames through which they understand and communicate their leader identities.

  • Being: Leaders who adopt this lens suggest that they have always thought of themselves as leaders. In describing their leadership style, they tend to note personal qualities, such as optimism, confidence, and natural leadership styles.
  • Engaging: Leaders using this lens believe their leadership originated when they were compelled to address a need. They tend to gravitate toward a more facilitative leadership style, focusing on engaging others and enabling collective action.
  • Performing: Leaders adopting this lens recount their leadership path as emerging from the attainment of a particular position. They look to having a sense of autonomy and control over an area of work and having a strong sense of duty and responsibility for their teams.
  • Accepting: Leaders who use this lens didn’t think of themselves as leaders until they realized that others were coming to them for answers, guidance, and support. They tend to emphasize supporting or serving the needs of others, often with a low-key demeanor.

In their study, the authors found a strong link between the stories people tell about how they became leaders and their current leadership style.

For example, if you only see yourself as a leader when and if others are following you (*accepting*), your identity may be highly tied to the perceptions of others, which could hold you back from claiming a new leader role unless you’re “asked” to by others. Sticking to one lens may also constrain who you see as leaders, limiting who you seek out as role models and who you tap to take on leadership roles. For example, if you “have always been a leader” (*being*), it may be difficult to let someone else, especially someone with a different style, assume a leadership role in a team of your peers.

What it means for us:

So as not to limit our abilities and constrain ourselves to one style of leadership, the authors suggest that we experiment on different origin stories. We can draw upon various aspects of our past experiences to shape a different story.

Consider when you saw yourself stepping up during adversity to help others take action, or consider when others looked to you for support, advice, or guidance. What if you were *born* a leader? What would this mean for your leadership? Practice constructing and telling different types of leadership stories, which can strengthen your identity and increase your adaptability.

Bottom Line:

Our narratives – whether internal or spoken – matter. How we explain our path to leadership makes a difference because it can bind us to certain beliefs about what a leader does. It can shape our leadership style. Using different frames of reference and different ways of telling our story can help us become more adaptive and ultimately, a better leader.


Switching from climbing a corporate ladder to starting a small business meant I was in for a steep learning curve. Back in the day, this would have meant investing in a full-on business program and going to school nights and weekends. Thankfully, the world has evolved and we now have access to focused and bite-sized programs that fit our busy schedules. I couldn’t have done it without the online classes at CreativeLive.

If you’re looking to start a small business (on the side or full-time), you’ll want to check out the list of best-selling business basics classes.* Good luck with your new venture!

*P.S. This is an affiliate link.

  • The upside of career envy. Because we compare ourselves with others from time to time. HBR outlines strategies to stop the agony of comparison on its tracks and make envy work for us.


“I used to think the question was ‘Who do you want to be?’. That was incorrect. The real question is ‘Who are you willing to be?'” — Tucker Max

Have you got a project (a new podcast, a new website, a new product, service, artwork, what have you) that you would like to get featured here? Hit ‘reply’ and tell me about it. Let’s support each other!


I’m all for figuring out how to learn faster. But zapping the brain to improve learning? I don’t know.

Learning new languages could become a lot easier in the future. In a new study published in the journal Science of Learning, researchers showed that small amounts of electrical stimulation through specially designed earpieces improved the adult participants’ abilities — an effect that lasted after the stimulation was halted. “In general, people tend to get discouraged by how hard language learning can be, but if you could give someone 13 percent to 15 percent better results after their first session, maybe they’d be more likely to want to continue,” said Matthew Leonard, an assistant professor of neurological surgery at the University of California, and co-author of the study.

I’m on the fence. What about you? Open to a little brain zapping?


… when we watched music videos on MTV? Sting? Dire Straits? Sting singing the opening line “I want my MTV” on Money For Nothing? Don’t remember? Before your time? Here’s the video for Money For Nothing – still gets me dancing to this day. This iconic song was taken from Dire Straits 1985 album Brothers in Arms. Hey, graphics may have moved on a long way since, but this was (believe it or not) 35 years ago. “That ain’t working; That’s the way to do it; You gotta play the guitar on the MTV” 🎶


🎙 Social media created so many new roles since becoming mainstream. Not just jobs inside companies such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc. An entire eco-system exists to support social media. So many roles are now needed — and are flourishing — because social media is here to stay (whether we like it or not). On the podcast, we’re exploring just two of these roles. This week, I’m joined by social media strategist Andréa Jones to explore social media management — a job that can be found inside companies and one that can easily be done as a freelancer. Today, Andréa runs a full-service social media agency but she got her start on this path when she was still an employee at The Marriott. She and I talked about what this work is really about, her career path, and how you can get started in this exciting world of social media.

Listen to Ep 186 or check out the show notes on the website.


Briefing Notes is researched, written, and edited by me alone. If you find value in the newsletter, I’d so much appreciate you subsidizing my coffee habit 😊 It helps with the research and the writing!

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Despite all the inconceivable things happening in 2020, the world continues to turn. Here in the US, classes have started (kinda, sorta) and we are 79 days away from a big election. Meanwhile, I’m still wearing masks, keeping my distance, and avoiding bars and restaurants. You?

Best wishes for a productive, safe, and sane week. Send over any comments, your favorite MTV video or Sting song, because… Sting!.

Cool beans,
Lou Blaser


A former management consultant and IT leader, Lou Blaser is the editor of Briefing Notes and the host of the Second Breaks podcast. She is also the author of Break Free: The Courage to Reinvent Yourself and Your career. Lou’s work is focused on helping experienced professionals navigate an evolving work landscape so they can continue their impact and relevance in a changing world.

The world of work is changing.

Stay smart about it.

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