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Sample Chapter: The Leader’s Journey

This is a sample chapter from Donna Lichaw’s book The Leader’s Journey: Transforming Your Leadership to Achieve the Extraordinary. 2023, Rosenfeld Media.

Chapter 1

Your Core Identity Narrative

A superhero’s identity is signified by their costume or a nickname. But it is much more than that. It’s the story of who they are. For example, Superman’s costume that is made of alien material, featuring a large “S,” tells us about who he is (a superhuman alien) and what he can do (fly). Captain America’s red, white, and blue star-spangled uniform and shield tell us about his beliefs and mission—he stands for freedom and shields the oppressed. Buffy the Vampire Slayer, on the other hand, doesn’t wear a costume at all. Her name clearly signifies what she does: she slays vampires. A superhero’s identity encapsulates her story of who she is, where she is going (mission), and how she will get there (superpowers).

But superheroes are often wrong about their identity early on in their journey. As such, they are not super yet. For example, before Harry Potter found out that he was a wizard destined to save the world, he was an orphan who lived under the stairs at his aunt and uncle’s house. He was an outcast in his family with the uncanny ability to wreak havoc with his mysterious, as-yet unidentified powers. It’s only when he found out his true identity that he could learn magic and then lead himself, lead others, and save the world.

When you find out who you are and how to leverage that, your story really gets going. I learned this the hard way.
When I left that leadership retreat in Napa that day I could not stop thinking about that executive’s question. How can I be a hero? I wish I could say that my mission was clear, superpowers activated, and I confidently set out on my quest to find out how leaders could be heroes, transforming my business and myself, as a result. I transformed from someone who developed products to someone who developed people. I found my cape. I helped others find their capes. We all lived happily ever after. The end.

But leadership journeys are rarely that straightforward.

I eventually did those things. But first, I flew home feeling like a failure and spiraled into a debilitating depression. The worse I felt, the harder it was to muscle through some of the biggest projects of my career. I’m embarrassed to admit that I did not show up as my best self as I delivered keynote addresses and consulted with teams and companies that I was sure I was letting down. I wanted to put the brakes on my software development work and focus on my new obsession. But I refused to give in to my whims. I had a very good reason for doing that—I knew that deep down, I was a quitter. When I found success, I quit and moved onto something new. I wasn’t going to let that happen again.

As I would eventually learn, this story wasn’t totally true. But it felt true. As such, it had a strong power over me. Psychologists call this kind of story an identity narrative—the story of who you are. I didn’t realize this at the time, but this story was also my cape—only at this point in my journey, it was choking me rather than helping me fly.

We all have stories that guide us. They move us forward. And they hold us back. It is only when you see them for what they are that you can embrace the ones that move you forward and transform the ones that hold you back.
To understand how to do this, you have to know what you’re looking for. To know what you’re looking for, you have to understand how stories work.

The Architecture of Experience

People have told stories since they began to communicate. The earliest evidence of storytelling, dates back 36,000 years. It’s believed that stories evolved as a way for people to teach one another so that they could influence behavior and ultimately stay alive.

For example, let’s say that your clan lives not far from a river, and little Lucy wants to go down to the river alone to play. You might tell Lucy, “I told you before, don’t go down to the river alone. It’s dangerous.” She might listen to you, or she might not. If you have ever dealt with a toddler or worked with an adult who behaves like a toddler, you know that they don’t often want to listen. Our hardwired need for autonomy starts at a very young age.

Instead, you could tell Lucy a story: “Lucy, once upon time, little Timmy went down to the river alone. He slipped in the mud along the bank, fell into a deep pool of water, and died a painful death while being chewed on by a crocodile. We could hear him screaming from the terrible pain he suffered as he was being torn apart. By the time we ran down to the river to help, it was too late. All we found was one of his shoes. So, whenever you go to the river, always take someone with you.” That story is much more likely to stick with Lucy and to have your desired outcome.

At their best, your stories move you forward. They motivate, inspire, and move you to action. They keep you smart and safe. They keep you alive.

At their best, these stories also hold you back. They keep you safe from doing stupid things— like changing your business focus just when things are getting good.

Stories elicit feelings and feelings guide behavior.

But stories aren’t just for telling. To process your story and then take action, Lucy needs to glean meaning from your story. Stories are how you comprehend what has happened, is happening, and will happen in the future if you take action. If things work out, you get to be the hero. Otherwise, you die.

Stories are the currency of understanding.

But it would be inefficient if you had to constantly hear people telling you stories in order to stay alive. Over time, the stories that you hear become a part of how you operate—you integrate them into your values, beliefs, sense of self, and projections onto the past, future, and even other people. They become so much a part of you that you don’t realize they’re there. Thinking in stories is like breathing or walking—you do it without noticing it. It’s just how you operate.

Stories are an evolutionary feature. They’re a huge part of how humans got this far.
But stories are also a bug—a defect, a glitch. When they go wrong, they go terribly wrong. To see what to do about it, I want to introduce you to Oscar.

Oscar was once a patient working with psychologist, Stephen Madigan, a pioneer in the field of narrative therapy. When Oscar first met Madigan, he was isolated, depressed, and suicidal. The previous year, he had been hit by a truck while crossing the street and immediately fell into a coma. He awoke after three months and endured a long, arduous recovery. He survived, surprising everyone including his doctors. But he was debilitated by severe anxiety and no longer wanted to live. At the time that Oscar sought treatment with Madigan, he believed that he was a “good for nothing,” a “useless human being.” While this story wasn’t true, Oscar believed it to be true. It was powerful enough to compel him to want to end his life.

Stories started to be used as a serious therapeutic tool many decades ago. Typically, when you go into a clinical setting with a problem, you are diagnosed by a professional and receive a prescription. You are depressed. Do this. You are ascribed a story and prescribed an ending. The results of a traditional, diagnostic approach are hit or miss, however. After all, we humans don’t always love being told what to do.

Starting in the 1980s, narrative psychologists and therapists like Madigan started to have a different idea. What if you let people take ownership of their stories rather than have doctors ascribe and prescribe a story to them? Might they have enough agency that they could then author their own way forward? The answer that Madigan found with Oscar was yes.

When you restructure your narrative, you can change your behavior and change yourself.

Rearchitecting Your Narrative

When Madigan and Oscar unpacked his story, they saw that they didn’t have a lot of data at its foundation. He felt unwell, he had a difficult recovery, he was convinced that his partner would abandon him, his friends would find him out, and he did not want to live. This all amounted to one epic story with a lot of missing pieces.
To fill in the missing pieces, Oscar and Madigan enlisted friends and family to write a brief letter expressing how they remembered him, how they currently felt about him, and how they imagined their relationship in the future. The letters poured in.

What Oscar thought was true was anything but true. He wasn’t useless and unloved. He was missed and much-loved. These stories created a much more cohesive, truthful story. It didn’t happen overnight. It took time, mindfulness, and having new experiences with his friends and family that could overwrite the former story. Over time Oscar transformed from an anxious, depressed “good for nothing” to a calm, confident friend and partner to many people. In transforming his story, he transformed himself. Oscar learned how to be the hero of his story.

When I first learned about Oscar and narrative therapy, I decided to take a closer look at my own story that was holding me back. This story was true, as far as I could tell. I was there! I lived it. I was living it. Could I really rewrite it?

Yes and no.

Although talking with people who shape your narrative and hearing their stories firsthand is the most effective way to reshape your story (more on that in Chapter 4, “Your 360 Story”), it’s not always possible. My story started when I was eight years old. If I could have, I would have gone back to the source. But my mom passed away when I was 13 years old. This story was all I had.

So, I did the next best thing. I unpacked this story like a screenwriter would. I broke my story into little pieces to see if I was missing anything. And then I put it back together and made it more complete.

My story started one day when I wanted to learn how to play piano and begged my mom for lessons. But lessons were expensive. Pianos were even more expensive. And I had a tendency to pick up new hobbies and drop them. The answer was emphatically “No.” I begged and begged, and the answer eventually became, “But you always start things and then you stop them. Lessons are expensive. Pianos are expensive. No.”

I eventually got those piano lessons, and I loved them. Convinced that I would stick with this hobby, my parents saved up enough money to buy me a piano. Two years later, I got bored, asked to quit, and got a big “I told you so” from my mom. I cost my family a lot of money. My parents were upset. And I felt ashamed. I regretted not listening to my mom. She was right all along.

I carried this story—and this shame—with me like a suit of armor for the next 30 years. “Don’t quit,” I told myself whenever I got excited about something new. And quit, I would.

While this story had always felt cohesive to me, it was missing some key components.

Understanding Narrative Architecture

At its core, every story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. And every story has a protagonist. That’s the hero—sometimes a group of heroes.

Every hero wants to accomplish something—they are either intrinsically motivated, or they find out that they are called to do something. This is what is called a call to adventure or a call to action. For example, Batman doesn’t fight villains for fun. He is called to do so after his parents are mugged and killed when he is a child. Buffy the Vampire Slayer is called to action by an ancient Watcher’s Council.

Along their journey, every hero faces conflict—both inner and outer.

And, in the end, they resolve their conflict and meet their goals. If they don’t, it’s a cliffhanger or a tragedy.

But for a story to be great, goals are not enough. A hero must have a reason for wanting to meet their goals. A so that… or why. These reasons often come down to basic human needs like food, shelter, love, connection, certainty, knowledge, mastery, autonomy, being understood, or being of service to name a few. (For a comprehensive list of human needs, download a free Needs Decoder Ring from my Story Driven Leadership Toolkit.

For example, Batman defeats villains to uphold justice. He could do it to seek vengeance (this is the case early on), but he would be a very different hero (an anti-hero) with a very different story. He could do it for no reason, but that would be boring. Heroes need a bigger purpose in life so that we can believe, relate, and connect to them.
While stories can get much more complex than this, this core architecture is what storytellers use to write stories. It’s also what your brain uses to understand and experience stories.

When I broke apart my story like a storyteller, I realized that it was missing a key component: a proper ending. A so that…

In my story, my hero knew what she wanted, but she didn’t understand deep down why she wanted it. I wanted to play piano. I played piano. Boring story. Boring ending. I wanted to play guitar. I played guitar. Same. “But why?” When I really thought about it, I wanted to express myself.

Simple reason. Totally different story.

As I got clear on the real ending of this story, I realized that I had actually accomplished what I had set out to do that day when I was eight years old. I just couldn’t see it because I had the ending all wrong. I figured out how to express myself. I had an amazing time doing it. After learning to play many, many instruments that I liked, but didn’t love, I eventually learned to play guitar. I found my thing. I spent the next few decades playing in rock bands. I met my best friends, met my mentors, kicked off my career in tech, and eventually met my wife through playing music.

Looking at my story with a proper ending, I could for the first time in my life that this wasn’t the story of a quitter. This was the story of someone who did not give up.

When I applied this story to my leadership journey, I realized that my story was much the same. What I always thought of as a series of failures, was in reality a decades-long career at the forefront of the tech industry. I wasn’t a quitter. I was an expert and a leader in my field. When I saw an opportunity, I pounced. I had grit—something a lot of leaders strive for. Not giving up until I found what I was looking for was a part of my process and my journey. I just couldn’t see it before.

As I saw all of this, my anxiety started to lift, and I began to feel like a human again. Where I used to feel ashamed, I now wished my mom could see how my story had turned out—how I had turned out. She would have been so proud. I was proud. I am proud.

Once I could see my story—and therefore see myself—I quit developing software and started developing leaders. I found my courage. I found my cape. And the world is a better place for it. And because this is a business leadership book, I should also mention that my business is much more successful because of it (more on that in Parts III and IV, “Mission” and “Impact”). It wouldn’t be easy—still isn’t. But that’s all part of the leader’s journey.

I would have a lot of work to do to fully believe this new story and put my old one to rest. But it piqued my curiosity enough to see if I could apply what I learned toward helping leaders unlock their own stories. Because I am someone who does not give up, the answer is a resounding yes. Throughout this book, I will show you exactly how to do that.

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