My feet are soiled, even blistered, after walking nearly four miles in my Chacos. My iPhone tells me I climbed ninety-six floors today over the course of two hours, which means I climbed a mountain. My companion was a man I've known for several years, but this was the first opportunity we've had to spend time together.
At sixty-three this man has traveled the world and worked inside of an organization of forty thousand people. When he started with that company twenty-eight years ago, their team was only two hundred people. Some would call that a career, others a lifetime of work. As an organizational psychologist and a Ph.D. whose primary goal is developing leaders within an organization, he can literally look back over his lifetime and see the impact he has had. It’s the difference that can be measured by the numbers and in the change in people’s lives. It's what we may call a life well lived.
Here I was with a man that I respect and admire, who is nearly twenty years my senior, and he truly is a model of the kind of leader developer I hope to be one day. The truth is for many of us on this journey, these kind of models and mentors are very rare. We may be around them, but when given the gift of their time, in my case nearly two hours on this hike, we want to make the most of the opportunity. So our tendency in this situation is to jump right in and pepper them questions, usually in one of the following categories:
- We ask for advice and counsel.
- We ask about a specific problem in order to find a practical solution that can be applied immediately.
- We ask for principles or a personal mantra that can be applied to guide our life decisions.
However, this tendency can also be a grave misstep. These questions work well when you are working with a mentor or coach. They can literally take you down many new trails, beyond just one conversation, and take place over months and years of relationship. But when given a rare opportunity like the one I was given, this strategy may cause you to miss out on something even more valuable. On the day of my hike with this man that I want to emulate, I chose not to go there with any specific agenda. I chose not to ask questions or ask for advice or counsel. Instead I simply stated, "I want to hear your story. Anything that you would like to share, I'm a listening ear, and I simply want to learn from you."
During the two hours of mountain climbing, our talk began with some common elements of storytelling. These elements provided a little foundational context as to where we were in our week and what was going on in our lives. As we hit the trail, he asked me a few questions that allowed me to share parts of my story I knew would simply honor him in his interest and curiosity. I shared a few relevant, honest, authentic, and important details from my journey as it related to different mile-markers in my life which set the tone and depth so he would feel comfortable sharing at the same level of sincerity. In other words, the transparency of my story invited him to be transparent with his as well. He told me about his personal challenges and victories, his experiences as a family man, and how he navigated through difficult days when what he wanted to do was give up. After coming off the mountain, I felt the weight of his story. As I reflected on this experience, I discovered the following three hidden treasures.
1. Story protects you
For nearly an hour I listened to a story that weaved over thirty to forty years of this man’s work and family life. As I listened, several themes began to emerge. His life exceeded what you might normally characterize as success. His life was about making an impact and how one person can make a difference by being faithful for the long haul. There was the theme of overcoming challenges, pushing through when you are overwhelmed, and it feels impossible. And there was the theme of burnout. No matter how great the mission is, if you don't take time to rest and recalibrate, you will crash.
Throughout his story he wasn't preaching. He wasn't telling me what to do. He wasn't giving me principles, or teaching a lesson. We were simply climbing a mountain. Listening to his story awakened something in me. I could resonate with the various themes along the way, and I began to recognize that if I wasn't careful, I was only a few nights of sleep away from real burnout.
His story caused me to think about how at times the burden and responsibility of my work can be so overwhelming that I lose perspective of why I've even stepped into such meaningful work in the first place. His story helped me understand how the disciplined pursuit of perspective will protect me from being overwhelmed and potentially be taken out completely. His story also showed me that making a difference really comes from a focused pursuit in your area of strength and competency; that deep work is hard work; and that it’s worth it. When you see the impact you are making along the way, you will be encouraged, revitalized, and inspired to press on and continue the work in even more specific and definable ways.
2. Story inspires you
I was recently at a conference where nationally recognized speakers were giving talks that certainly stirred the heart and moved the audience with great emotion and connection. As I listened to their stories I too felt swept up in the movement and emotion of the moment. Those talks certainly have their place, but they are quite different than the inspiration I received from walking alongside a man who's guiding me on a trail I have never traversed before, showing me new vistas, peaks, and valleys. Even the physical ability he has in his early sixties, to be able to climb such mountains, inspires me! To be that physically fit, let alone have the mental and emotional fitness he has when I'm that age is some to aspire to. This man has a heart that is whole and alive and is filled with spiritual vitality in spite of seasons of overwhelming and challenging circumstances. His story inspires my story, and I hope my story will in turn inspire others.
3. Story encourages you
While walking alongside this man as he's listening to my story and sharing with me the things he has heard from others, he takes the time to encourage me in my work. I will tell you, there is nothing quite like having someone of this caliber, credibility, and experience look at a man like me and say, "I see something in you that, as it continues to develop and grow, will make an impact. How I can encourage you further along the way?” It is such a boost in confidence to hear him say, "I see something in you. I believe in you, and I will walk with you.” When someone we admire and trust, who's farther down the path than we are, in whose footsteps we can follow and learn from is willing to guide us along the way and encourage us to move forward in our levels of influence, they are demonstrating the next level of leadership and are modeling what it looks like to encourage others. It's the exchange of story—my story for his—and that lays a foundation for friendship and mentoring that moves us, inspires us, and encourages us in ways that are hard to even put into words.
The Danger of the Misstep - Why we miss story
The fact is, most leaders are running a hundred miles an hour, reacting and dealing with the challenges of each day. So often, when we're in the presence of someone who's farther along than we are, we are quick to ready, fire, aim, and we jump right into problem solving mode and seek the quick, pre-scripted solutions, so we can move on. Certainly, there are times when we are in crisis, when we need immediate answers, and there is nothing wrong with that. However, what actually may be needed more is the discipline of listening. Taking time for story allows space for things to be shared, things that maybe haven't been shared in many years. And when you take the time to listen, you may find that the story resonates with your story, providing a significant point of connection. What we learn from the stories of our mentors and models is the wisdom they have gained as they have walked along their journey. Their story may provide the treasures of protection, inspiration, and encouragement and be the very thing that gives us the heart to stay the course in the midst of difficult and challenging circumstances.
The treasures found in others’ stories will motivate us to seize new opportunities and move us forward to new levels of influence that we didn't think was possible. So I would encourage you today to think about those people in your life who are further along in the journey of life. Get outdoors with them, in an environment other than a lunch or conference room meeting, and ask them, "What's your story?"