July 7, 2018 / Esther Choy
Flowing beer. Check. Die Mannschaft jersey. Check. Saving our voices to root our hearts out for Germany’s national soccer team. Check. Earlier in June this year, my family and I were sitting in a suburb outside Stuttgart hoping and expecting Germany to make history during this year’s World Cup. Germany did make history at this year’s World Cup. They entered this year’s games as the defending champion, yet instead of winning the title as they had four times in the past, they didn’t even make it out of the group game—for their first time ever. The more glorious the story, the more painful the fall feels. Expectations were very, very high for Germany. How could they lose to South Korea and come dead last in their group? There’s a lesson here for high-achieving leaders.
In the stinging loss the Germans experienced, I see the stories of many high achievers I have known. Many have reached very high levels of success by all standards and then face what they see as an “unacceptable failure.”
The fact is, success comes with baggage. One particular burden high-achieving leaders bear is that the more successful they are at turning their big dreams into realities, the more their narratives about themselves start to shrink. The range of acceptable outcomes simply becomes much narrower, while the range of unacceptable outcomes becomes frighteningly wide. In this way, leaders begin to tell themselves a very limited variety of stories about themselves, and about what it means to have a promising future. And when things go south or just don’t accord with these “shrinking narratives,” successful leaders can all of a sudden feel as if they’ve become utter, worthless failures.
When it comes to leadership storytelling, how often do we consider the stories that are playing on a loop in our own heads? These stories we tell ourselves matter. Our story sets up our expectations.
The pressure on successful people can have dire consequences. In the months after Robin Williams took his own life in 2014 at the age of 63, many publications surfaced about suicides. The Washington Post, for instance, reported that many who are at high risk for suicide fit Williams’s profile exactly: “A middle-aged or older white male toward the end of a successful career, who suffers from a serious medical problem as well as chronic depression and substance abuse, who recently completed treatment for either or both of those psychological conditions and who is going through a difficult period, personally or professionally.”
Surprised? Most people are. After all, when someone is in the dominant group, with social and financial resources, what could be so bad as to drive them to take their own life?
It has to do with relative expectations. Toward the end of a successful career, many men feel a sense of losing their grip. They had climbed to a certain height and expected to keep climbing. But instead they found themselves slipping. Some psychologists believe men in this group even begin to tell themselves they’re a burden to their loved ones, according to the Post.
What can high-achieving leaders–men and women– do so they can keep achieving without setting themselves up for failure by creating these unbearable pressures?
Avoid Getting Stung Twice
A Buddhist parable says that there are two “arrows” that cause our suffering. The first is the actual arrow. The second is our reaction to the pain of the first arrow. In this view, 50% of our personal suffering comes not from what happens to us but from the stories we tell ourselves about our pain.
When expectations are high and a crisis hits, high-achieving leaders can alleviate their pain by proactively managing their response to it.
Change The Story
The Olympic freestyle skier David Wise offers an example leaders would do well to follow.
On NPR’s Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me, Wise told the story of having a ski pop off, not just once—but during his first two runs. Each competing athlete only got three runs. What was he thinking as he prepared for the third and final chance? He felt incredible pressure, but he also says he found it “kind of comical.” He started to feel “light hearted about it,” he says, because he started to tell himself that skiing was what he was made to do, and he could “glorify God through failure and enlighten people’s lives through failure just as much as success.”
Rather than tell himself a “shrinking narrative” that mandated success as the only option, David Wise told himself an expansive narrative infused with self-compassion and humility. It was an expansive narrative not only because it encompassed both success and failure, but also because it included others in his story. Realistically, even if he blew it at the event of a lifetime, others could still learn from him.
How did things turn out? With one more chance, Wise sailed down the mountain, the skis stayed on, he completed a basically perfect run– and he won the Olympic Gold.
High-Achieving Leaders: Seek Help
Telling yourself a light-hearted story and convincing yourself that there’s a higher purpose or a spiritual narrative waiting to be discovered somewhere may not help everyone.
In fact, for some, telling yourself a different story may not help at all. It’s not always just a matter of telling yourself to think differently. There may be a need for help. Maybe this is working with executive coaches, maybe it’s asking your team to lean in, maybe it is simply admitting your own fear to yourself. But whatever it is for you, don’t try to break through the wall alone.
Meanwhile, the world is watching and waiting to see who’s going to be the world cup champion this time. We won’t find out until July 15. But we know for sure that many favorites– in addition to Germany– are out of the game now (Argentina, Portugal, Spain, at this point of writing). Brazil just advanced to the next round. But will France follow suit too?
The outcome could depend, at least in part, on what stories they’re telling themselves and whether or not they’re tackling the challenge with all the help they can get.
Are There Flaws in the Stories We Tell Ourselves?
Storytelling: More Than Entertainment
If you want to be sure you and your team are telling yourselves the right stories, contact us for a complimentary storytelling consultation! Leadership Story Lab trains and coaches managers in storytelling techniques to help them become more engaging and persuasive communicators. Whether you would like to stand out in the interview process, add punch to a presentation, or make a compelling case for a new initiative, we can help. Schedule a complimentary session with us today!
Esther’s book, Let the Story Do the Work (published by HarperCollins Leadership), is now available!
Photo credit: Esther Choy
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This article originally appeared on Forbes.com.
Better Every Story
"This is an amazing and insightful post! I hadn’t thought of that so you broadened my perspective. I always appreciate your insight!" - Dan B.
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