One of the keys to understanding others is to learn how to listen and learn from each other’s stories. As leaders, it is dangerous to make assumptions about where other people have been and what they might do next. Understanding their stories can help make a personal connection the helps build relationships and move the work forward.
This week we’ve been celebrating the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. That always reminds me of a lesson I learned about hearing other people’s stories. I had an acquaintance that I’d known for a long time. Some years ago we were traveling together and getting to know each other better. The person was a retired professor from a local seminary and I made some wrong assumptions about what his political experience might be.
We had an opportunity to go swimming and I saw his legs for the first time when he wasn’t wearing long pants. One of his legs was scarred with what looked like bite marks. As we talked, I learned that he had been with Martin Luther King, Jr. on the courthouse steps in Alabama. The bites occurred when police turned dogs loose to break up the event. He’d been part of history and I never knew it.
On another occasion I was looking at the reviews posted in the window of a local community theater. Someone came up to me and I thought, “here’s another homeless person asking for a handout.” As it turned out, the person told me about an opportunity when the theater sells tickets very inexpensively to local residents. We had a nice talk about plays we had both seen.
When I work with project teams, I’m teaching myself to ask questions before giving my opinions. Tell me more about why you want to do it that way? What happened that makes you so frustrated? How can it be improved to make your life easier? Providing an opportunity for colleagues to share their stories helps build trust and I’ve learned a lot that I wouldn’t have known any other way.
Have you had experiences where hearing someone else’s story helped you to understand yourself and the other person in a new way?
Dee Anne Bonebright
“One of the great tragedies of life is that men seldom bridge the gulf between practice and profession, between doing and saying…. On the one hand, we proudly profess certain sublime and noble principles, but on the other hand, we sadly practice the very antithesis of these principles. How often are our lives characterized by a high blood pressure of creeds and an anemia of deeds!” – Martin Luther King, Jr., Strength to Love
While this quote from Martin Luther King, Jr. may not be the most repeated of his work, I find it to be thought-provoking and worthy of self reflection.
When you think about your own leadership, it can be helpful to explore that gap between doing and saying. Are there certain principles that you value, but have difficulty practicing? Are there times when you say one thing, but do another? Think about it and be honest with yourself.
As human beings I think we all have incongruencies between what we say and do. What areas of your leadership could be strengthened by bridging the gulf between what you profess and what you practice?
To celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. day today, I reread his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. It’s a powerful speech that outlines a compelling future of freedom for all people. King paints a clear picture of that future, especially in the last paragraph of his speech, where he said:
“And when this happens, when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, ‘Free at last! free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!’ “
King’s speech reminded me that each of us, as leaders, are responsible to paint a picture of a shared, preferred future for those we lead when we ask them to follow in any change effort, big or small.
Here are some questions that might help you paint that picture for others you lead:
- What is the current problem we are facing?
- What are the consequences of that problem?
- What does the desired future look like?
- Why should anyone care and join forces with us to change it?
In King’s speech he does an amazing job of creating a compelling picture of both the need for change and what that might look like. As I reread his speech, I also noticed that he didn’t give people a step-by-step guide or process to achieve that change, but he did encourage and empower others to join in the work of change. That’s a powerful example of great change leadership.
“The ultimate test of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and moments of convenience, but where he stands in moments of challenge and moments of controversy.”
–Martin Luther King, Jr.
As we celebrate Martin Luther King Day today, it seems appropriate to share a quote from his treasure trove of wisdom.
What significance does this quote have for you? When you think about your own leadership, where have you been tested by moments of challenge or controversy? How did you respond to the challenge? What did you do in the moment of controversy? What have you learned as a result?
I encourage you to share your stories here to enrich our learning community of leaders.