Serving the Story

I’m Starting to Resent Children for Being too Wise

It was November in New York, and I was steeling myself to attend a three-day experiential conference on leadership and authority where I wouldn’t know a soul. I wondered how I would be perceived by people there. Would they see me as a leader? Would I behave as one? I hoped so.

Throughout Day One, I noticed myself trying to say things that sounded smart. Leaderly. When one of my groups needed a designated leader, I volunteered, as did others. The group decided to put off the choice until the next day, which frustrated me. If I were coming across as I’d hoped to, wouldn’t they have just chosen me?

That night, washing my face, I looked in the mirror, evaluating my leadership performance that day. My verdict? “Meh.”

But why?

I was stumped until I flashed back to an afternoon the previous year when I had the privilege of teaching basic improv communication skills to the 4th and 5th grade Leadership Club at my daughter’s school. When I asked the kids what they thought leadership was, one of the boys answered, “A leader is someone who helps people.” I was floored by his precociously wise response at the time.

A year later, looking in the mirror, I was humbled by it. I realized that at the conference, I’d been too focused on myself and how people were seeing me, not enough on helping others.

How do improvisers help our scene mates? A scene?

The answer: We give the story what it needs.

Of course.

The next day, I chose to look at each of the sessions, whether large or small, as a story that I was co-creating with everyone else in the room.

My question shifted from: “What should I do and how will it affect people’s perception of me?” to an improviser’s lens: “What does this story need, and how can I give it?”

The shift felt profound. Sometimes, the story needed me to be silent, to listen. Sometimes the story needed me to say something that felt scary—something true that wasn’t being addressed, but that could help get our collective story unstuck if someone said it out loud. Occasionally, it required some signposting: aggregating what was happening in the room and checking for alignment, guiding us to revisit any disconnects.

As for choosing the Leader in our group, we agreed that a few of us would take turns. When my turn came, I got a surprise. When I focused on giving the story what it needed, there was very little difference between how it felt to be the “leader” and what it felt like to be a “follower.” Both felt more like helping, like taking that wise boy’s definition of true leadership to heart.

Try this: Look at the rest of your interactions today as stories you are co-creating. How can you serve the story best? What changes for you when you see life that way?