Last weekend I taught the second day-long leadership class of the semester. I encourage my students to think of our classes as a gathering around the “campfire”, where we tell stories of what we have experienced about leadership at work and in our families. Our campfire is the place where we can symbolically warm ourselves with the community of others who are on the journey to build their leadership skills. The first question of the day I ask is to help them reflect and share their stories. I ask:

“What has become clearer or more muddled about leadership since we last met?”

This works to draw and focus their attention on a Sunday in which many have already had three busy days of class activities at Presidio Graduate School. Our students fly, drive, bike and bus from a number of locations, bringing with them a rich tapestry of perspectives about leadership and change. I am grateful for the willingness of the class to learn and challenge themselves to strengthen their already considerable acumen, even on a long Sunday.

Each class also features a “conversation starter” figure, someone who has walked down the dusty path of leadership and can share their stories. What have the experienced practitioners discovered along the way? What has become clearer or muddled about leadership for them? Kathleen Shaver, the Director Sustainability and Risk at Cisco Systems, joined us in this recent class. I don’t have my guests give power point presentations about what they have done, but rather ask for an exploration of the decisions, dilemmas, and personal discoveries they have made in their careers as sustainability leaders. Kathleen talked about her experience in her prior role at Mattel, where she was on point for managing the negotiations with Greenpeace over paper packaging sourcing. She talked about maintaining relationships over the course of your career, even when there is considerable potential for difference.

She said, “you never know who you are going to meet again”.

It is important to take a long and integrated view on career, relationships and life in general. One of the other core features of this class is that each student tells a 3 minute story about their journey to leadership. The focus is on their ability to be authentic, using courageous, emotional and autobiographical information in a coherent story that highlights a pivotal time when they honed their leadership. The story is followed by in class verbal “feedforward” to help deepen and strengthen their narrative and delivery, and through written individual notes to each storyteller. I am always heartened by the insight and resilience of our students to integrate their life challenges into leadership learning.

The ability to demonstrate emotional literacy in the service of leadership is one of the key abilities of successful change leaders. We are all the combination of our narratives about our potential and contributions and a leader who can use their own story provides the opportunity for others to bring their experience forward as well. If you want to deepen your leadership skills, I can’t recommend this type of reflection enough. Take a few moments and think:

What would your 3 minute journey story be? How would you tell it? How can you use that insight to bring more emotional literacy to your work?


Main photo: Three Havasupai Indian man sitting around a campfire telling stories, ca.1899. Photography by James, George Wharton. Source: University of Soouthern California Libraries and California Historical Society.