Leaders can activate their teams by helping them capture and share their stories in ways that acknowledge their superpowers.
I remember so clearly the morning that I stood at the bottom of the stone staircase, staring up at the larger-than-life building before me. I had just walked through a massive iron gate that wound around the perimeter of my new workplace, and I could feel my chest slowly tightening with uncertainty. It was September 2001 and my first day working on Parliament Hill for a political office in my home country of Canada.
The lead-up to this day had been three months in the making. I bought the right outfit, researched my new boss, read up about the history of the building. I tried to be ready. But there are some moments that you can never truly be prepared for. And this was one of them. Because there I was, walking into one of the most fiercely competitive places in the country with a coffee in one hand and my arts degree in the other. I had never taken a political science class in my life. I didn’t know what the various parties stood for. I didn’t know how any of this would work. But somehow, I had landed there. And I felt like an alien that had been dropped on the wrong planet.
It’s been said that it takes a few months to get your bearings in a new job. When I left politics three and a half years after that day in September, I still felt completely out of place. And looking back, 20 years later, that feeling of not belonging ended up giving me one of the best gifts I could hope for: the gift of starting to understand my own story and realizing the benefits of sharing that story with others.
Getting to Know Our Authentic Stories
As I navigated my way through the political landscape of Parliament Hill, I came to learn about the nuances of a universe I had previously known nothing about. Committee meetings, legislative agendas, and the House of Commons became part of my day-to-day routine. I dressed the part, talked the part, and walked the part. And yet, I always felt like an outsider there. My lack of political background seemed to haunt me, like the shadows that followed me through the underground tunnels connecting the three main parliament buildings.
On my last day working for the member of Parliament who first hired me, I knocked on the thick wooden door to his office and asked if I could come in to say goodbye. He’d always been an incredibly kind man, and I needed to tell him how grateful I was for the opportunity to step into his world. We sat on the oversized couches next to his desk and talked for a bit about what would come next for me.
As our conversation came to a close, I knew this was my last chance to ask him the question that had been on my mind since the day I first stepped foot in the building. “Why, of all the people who applied for this job, did you hire me?”
A puzzled yet delighted look spread across his face, and he leaned back in his seat as though to ponder the question a bit longer. “Nearly everyone here has a master’s degree in political science, Gen,” he replied, boldly stating the very words that seemed to cage me in isolation. “They know everything about politics.”
“But here’s the thing,” he continued. “I can teach you politics, but I can’t teach you how to communicate with other people effectively. You either have it, or you don’t. And you have it. Your arts degree and your ability to connect gave our office something that most other offices didn’t have: the ability to demonstrate our love of people — not just our love of politics.”
It took everything in me to hold back my tears at that moment.
He smiled. We hugged. He thanked me for my time serving his office. And I walked out of that building, understanding something I had never understood before: Not only did my own authentic story matter, but it mattered to other people. Furthermore, my story became intricately woven into a much bigger story in the workplace. And it’s a story I feel so thankful to have been a part of.
We each have these kinds of superpowers that we bring into our workplaces. So the question is: Do we know what those superpowers are?
Unleashing the Heroes on Our Teams With Storytelling
Humans are natural storytellers; we’re constantly seeking to complete a picture or connect the dots. And in the instances where we lack the appropriate information to do so, our brains automatically fill in the blanks with our own stories. Sometimes, those stories are rich and empowering, leaving people filled with a sense of belonging. Other times, they become detrimental to ourselves and those around us, leaving people feeling isolated and irrelevant. This raises a specific question: What would be the benefit of sharing our story and exploring it more intentionally?
How different would my political experience have been had I thought to ask my haunting question much sooner? How different might all of our work experiences be if we understood what special superpower we bring to the table?
The reality is that the workplace is changing along with our relationship with our work. Employees are seeking more purpose, connection, and well-being. They want to belong to something bigger than a bottom line and a profit margin — they want to be a part of something they believe in. Leaders are the key to making that happen. By helping your employees become part of an authentic story, you help them become heroes within your team. Here are a couple of ways to make this happen:
1. Share your own story with others.
It always starts with you. As the leader of your company, you have the opportunity to build a foundation of truth, authenticity, and vulnerability. The example you set will pave the way for all those who work with you. And part of that example is being honest about your own authentic story. What led you to where you are now? What obstacles have you faced along the way? What do you stand for as a leader? What do you feel really good about as a leader? What are areas you would like to work on? How you go about sharing your story with others can vary, be it through internal newsletters, team meetings, or one-on-one check-ins. All of these stories give your team a doorway into the bigger story of you and the company, not to mention imparting a sense of belonging.
2. Encourage your team to uncover their authentic stories.
Now that you’ve shared pieces of your story with others on your team, it’s time to start weaving the thread of everyone else’s story. Each person you work with has walked their own road to get to where they are. That road has likely been filled with trials, victories, and rewards that have all shaped the person they are today. That road has also gifted them with the unique strengths that they bring to your team. Leveraging honest storytelling to unearth your team’s superpowers is a powerful way to help team members recognize their unique contributions to the goals that you’re all trying to accomplish.
3. Allow your team members to see the heroic nature in each other.
It’s one thing to recognize the heroic nature in yourself, but it’s a far more impactful experience to see the heroic nature in those around you. Bringing your people together to share their stories with others on the team will reveal the humanity and courage that might not be naturally visible within a workplace setting. Seeing the superpowers of those around you — and hearing about the dragons that had to be slain to get those superpowers — is an incredible way to build high-performing teams. It provides team members with a sense of trust, psychological safety, and humanity, reminding people that they’ve all had their own battles to overcome.
Sharing our authentic stories and the challenges we’ve all faced along the way will bring your teams closer and create a foundational anchor for moving forward as the workplace changes. Because once we see the hero in one another, we start to ask: “What can we heroically accomplish together?”