Tag Archive for Story

My Simple Diagram of Leadership

A number of years ago, in my doctoral studies, I took a course called Issues in Leadership Theory. Throughout the course, we, the students, were assigned essays on various theories, ideas, and characteristics of leadership, with which we were expected to interact and then write reflective responses. The goal was to build a broader understanding of leadership and of the effective practice of leadership.

I was taking this course while serving as the administrator of a K-12 school, one that had experienced some great difficulties and needed to be revitalized. I was on the ground floor, in the middle of leadership activity, trying to build and/or rebuild momentum, enrollment, programs, morale, and even (literally) a school building. There were many issues, needs, and deficiencies that I was wrestling with (like, how to start a hot lunch program, how to expand brand recognition in the community with no advertising budget or director of development, and how to attract new excellent teachers, with a persuasive vision, while retaining the existing excellent teachers who were resistant to change). Although I did not fully realize at the time the extent to which it was happening, I was actually in the process of developing my leadership style and principles of practice. And so, over the duration of that leadership course, as I read, interacted, and responded to the assignments, while at the same time implementing and learning the practical application of those lessons in my job, the ideas that resonated with me began to come together in my mind to form my own personal theory of leadership.

As I put those ideas together in a way that seemed to make sense to me, I began to see leadership as a process that occurs within a context, which I visually illustrate below in a diagram called Jeff’s Simple Diagram of Leadership (I like diagrams and illustrations). The basic concept is this: In any situation, there are leaders and followers. Sometimes who they are can change, but both of the individuals/groups are necessary. The leader must have knowledge of the context/environment in which the leader and followers exist (present). He must also have knowledge of the organizational history (past) and organizational vision (future). With this knowledge, the leader engages in the process that is a continuing cycle of analyzing past, present, and future in order to move people and the organization toward a desired growth, change, or direction.

Now that time has passed since I first formulated these ideas, I believe that this simple diagram is a very accurate picture, and in many ways was even prophetic, of how I have learned to lead. I have come to understand and value the extreme importance of story and culture, both in organizational history and in understanding the people with whom the leader works, and therefore have learned the value of listening and asking questions (past). I have experienced the importance of the role of relationship in the context and environment in which the leaders and followers interact, and in the process have developed my own relational skills (present). I have learned that I have the ability to see “the big picture” of what the organization ought to be and to communicate this in an understandable way (future). Along the way, I have discovered one of my greatest leadership strengths is the ability to make connections between these three – past, present, and future – in way that makes sense to people. And now as I look back, I can see that in each organization in which I have worked, my leadership has followed this pattern and process and has resulted in significant and positive change.

In that particular school in which I was first putting these ideas together, I must admit that I made many mistakes. For example, this is where I learned the importance of taking time to listen to people and understand culture before initiating change (by making the mistake of making changes too quickly without first understanding the environment). However, I grew in both my knowledge and practice of leadership, resulting in a number of significant positive changes, including, among other things: doubling of enrollment; restoration of financial stability; initiation of a large scale building program; establishment of a school board, a hot lunch program, an after school program, and a parent-teacher organization; development and expansion of honors and advanced academic programs; and establishment of a student internship program. In a sense, it was a practicing lab in which my particular leadership ability and skills were nurtured and grew.

Since that time in my life, I have further developed effective leadership skills and practice that have enabled me to be an agent of change in several other schools and organizations. I have personally identified many of the basic principles that underscore my approach, which include principles such as: learn history and culture; people matter to God, so it is important to build relationships and care about people; see the big picture; recognize God’s sovereignty; know that to influence change, you have to change the way people think; communicate; empower; serve; be willing to do things differently. Over time, I have also seen my simple diagram of leadership emerge and remain as the crux of my personal theory of leadership, with the three key words of story, relationship, and change reflecting my leadership.

I have found what works well for me, and it involves some fundamental ideas that should be true for every leader, but it also is expressed in a way that matches who I am. I would encourage you to do the same – identify the core leadership principles that matter, and learn how to package and use them in a way that best incorporates your strengths, so that you can become the best leader you can be, by being yourself.

Jeff's Simple Diagram of Leadership










First Get the Whole Story

Early in my experience as an educator, I heard my administrator say to parents (tongue-in-cheek), “If you don’t believe half of what your student says happened in the classroom, we won’t believe half of what they tell us happened at home.” Like many humorous comments, this contains a morsel of truth. People have a tendency to represent facts in such a way as to paint themselves in the best possible light, and children are no different. Often over the years, I have fielded phone calls from parents who were contacting me because of what their child said happened in class (things like, “my child told me that the teacher said this in class!”). I quickly learned to redirect their concern to the teacher, so that the parent could hear the whole story. Nearly every time, the parent has come back to me and said, “Now that I have the whole story, it makes a lot more sense.” (And most of the time, the story the child told at home was an effort to cover up or misdirect from wrong choices of behavior made by the student in the classroom.)

There are two particular passages in Scripture that have greatly helped me to understand this idea. One is Proverbs 18:13, which says, “He who answers a matter before he hears the facts—it is folly and shame to him” (Amplified Bible). The Message says it even more plainly: “Answering before listening is both stupid and rude.” This verse was first shared with me by a professor when I was completing a marriage and family counseling internship, as an exhortation to probe and question thoroughly before drawing conclusions in the counseling setting. For quite a while, I literally kept the verse written on a notecard, taped on top of my desk, as a reminder. I have since learned that this verse applies to many circumstances, not just to a counseling session. When you deal with people (and most of us do), you will have the experience of people telling you the story from their own perspective, which will likely mean that it may or may not be true (as I shared in a previous post, “either it’s true or it’s not”). It is foolish and stupid to react or respond without first getting the whole story

The second verse is James 1:19, which says, “So then, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath.” As many grandmothers have shared with their grandchildren, “there’s a reason why God gave us two ears and one mouth; we should listen twice as much as we speak!” This verse has been a constant reminder to me to be careful to listen first, although in the process of my growth as a leader, it was a lesson that sometimes came the hard way.

In one particular organization in which I worked, I made a spectacular blunder that loudly and clearly drove this lesson home to me. I was leading a small group of event planners in planning for one specific event, and everyone in the group (except me) had been involved in that organization for several years. As the leader, I felt that I should take charge of presenting good ideas, so I began the first meeting by telling the rest of the group all of my ideas. My enthusiasm (combined with the fact that I had not yet established trust or relationship) resulted in the rest of the group shutting down while giving verbal support to my ideas. However, over the next few days I began to hear from others that the entire committee was frustrated with me, and the event was now in jeopardy. I had to go back to the committee and apologize for speaking without listening, and then I had to make it safe for them to talk. When I did that, I learned so much about the history and tradition associated with that event, and could see that I had been on the verge of causing damage to the culture. I needed to take the time to listen, understand history, and get the whole story.

The added bonus is that when you take time to learn the whole story, you are much more likely to be able to discern if it is true or if it is not.  In Deuteronomy 18:21-22, Moses provided some direction to the people of Israel to help them understand how to discern this, when he said, “And if you say in your heart, ‘How may we know the word that the Lord has not spoken?’— when a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord, if the word does not come to pass or come true, that is a word that the Lord has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously. You need not be afraid of him.” He made the point that if you take the time to observe and get the whole story, beginning to end, you can tell if it is true or not.

It is easy for a leader to assume that leadership means taking charge and giving direction. However, I believe that these principles from Scripture give us a very different picture: leadership should be characterized by listening. Ask questions. Make it safe for people to share. Validate. And make sure you get the whole story before you react.

The Importance of Story

“Life, you’ll notice, is a story ” (Eldredge, 2004, p. 2).  This brief statement by John Eldredge, in the short book Epic, seems to have captured in six words the realization for me that my life is a story.  This was not always my perspective or viewpoint.  In fact, when I entered my journey in my doctoral leadership program, I believe I was quite strongly a “concrete sequential” thinker with a quantitative view of data and life.  Somewhere along the way, a series of circumstances, events, and reflective moments drew me to connect with the concept of “story,” and led me to much more of a qualitative understanding of life.  My personal growth had changed me to the point that I would now describe my perspective much like Eldredge did when he followed that six-word statement by saying, “Life doesn’t come to us like a math problem.  It comes to us the way that a story does, scene by scene.  You wake up.  What will happen next?  You don’t get to know – you have to enter in, take the journey as it comes.  The sun might be shining. There might be a tornado outside.  Your friends might call and invite you to go sailing.  You might lose your job.  Life unfolds like a drama.  Doesn’t it?  Each day has a beginning and an end.  There are all sorts of characters, all sorts of settings.  A year goes by like a chapter from a novel.  Sometimes it seems like a tragedy.  Sometimes like a comedy.  Most of it feels like a soap opera.  Whatever happens, it’s a story through and through.”  (pp. 2-3)

A natural outgrowth of recognizing the emergence of my own personal story was the understanding that “everyone has a story,” and so I transitioned from a recognizing the importance of my story to a recognizing the importance of story in others, and in leadership in general.  I see this now in the simple way that I will often ask questions of people I meet to draw out their stories, and look for connections between their stories and mine in order to build relationship in a way that will benefit and enhance the effectiveness of my leadership. This importance of understanding each person’s story is, for me, reflected in the research methodology of narrative inquiry.   I have learned from Clandinin and Connelly, in the book Narrative Inquiry (2000), that story, or narrative inquiry, is a very important component of research because it provides the context and history of a circumstance and an environment, which provides meaning to them.  Merriam (1998) describes it as “the meaning people have constructed, that is, how they make sense of their world and the experiences they have in the world” (p. 6).

Over time, I have come to see leadership as a process that occurs within a context.  It seems that many approaches to leadership focus on the attributes of the leader or the relationship between the leader and the followers, but I believe that it is also very necessary to take into account the context of that process.  This includes knowledge of the context/environment in which the leader and followers currently exist (present); knowledge of the organizational history (past); and organizational vision (future).  With this knowledge, the leader engages in the process that is a continuing cycle of analyzing past, present, and future in order to move people and organizations toward a desired growth, change, or direction.  In other words, the leader understands that the story of the organization and the stories of its people are necessary to understanding how to shape the organization, which means that story is critical for a leader to be effective as a change agent.  Therefore, in order for me to effectively make change within an organization, I must first understand its history, and to understand its history, I must hear stories.  I need to ask questions about the way things are done and why they are done in that way, build relationships with those around me, allowing me to best empower and encourage them.  I need to share the example of my own story, and listen to their stories.

So then the “plot” of my story, so to speak, is that I have learned the importance of story for leadership.  I have learned that knowing my own story is vital to understanding how I lead and why I lead the way I do.  I have learned the importance of knowing the story of the organization which I lead, which leads me to ask questions and listen before acting, in order to better understand and manage that organization.  I have learned the value of using story as a tool to effectively teach, mentor, motivate, and bring about change.  I have learned that everyone has a story, and each person’s story in turn impacts how that person constructs meaning from life, and therefore – in order for me to influence and develop my followers – I need to understand each person’s story.  As a leader, a teacher/mentor, and a change agent: story matters!


Clandinin, D. J., & Connelly, F. M. (2000). Narrative inquiry: Experience and story in qualitative research. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Eldredge, J. (2004). Epic:  The Story God is Telling. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc.

Merriam, S. B. (1998). Qualitative research and case study applications in education (2nd ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.