Leadership Transformation: The Third Story Approach

Great leadership often stems from experiences marked by conflict. Steve Jobs, at the age of six or seven, once revealed to his neighbor that he was adopted. This led to the question: "So does that mean your real parents didn't want you?" Steve's memory of rushing into his house in tears was etched into his mind. It was at that moment that the belief in his own uniqueness took root.

Conflict was at the core of Steve Jobs' identity. He grappled with feelings of abandonment, being chosen, and being special, all simultaneously. His close friends believed abandonment left him with scars.

Steve displayed exceptional intelligence compared to those around him. After fourth grade, he tested at an intelligence level of a sophomore in high school. The school wanted him to skip two grades and go into seventh grade. It was decided that he would only skip one.

Skipping a grade turned Steve Jobs into an awkward loner. He was bullied by the people older than him. Eventually his parents moved him to a new school, where his friends became hippies and geeks. People interested in math, science, and electronics, but also drugs and counterculture.

Steve dabbled in drugs throughout high school. When he reached the end of high school this exploration put him at a crossroads: electronics and engineering or literature and creative endeavors. A decision that felt impossible to make.

What molds an attractive leader?

People debate whether the leaders are born or made. Steve Jobs wasn't a natural born leader. A troubled youth filled with conflicting ideas of reality. This built his unconventional leadership style. 

Constant conflict plays a critical role in our progression. Without conflict we grow lazy. Resistance is the only thing that makes us stronger.

A known and chosen conflict provides the fuel needed to prove you’re worthy. Robert Greene says, “A person who has something to prove will move mountains.” In an effort to cope with the feeling of abandonment, Steve Jobs would work relentlessly to prove to himself he was special.

Progress through conflict means avoiding two things:

  • Choosing comfort over disruption
  • Battling conflict that bring significant loss

Comfort brings out learned helplessness. Once you have developed a craving for comfort you begin to believe you’re incapable of learning a new skill, adopting a new mindset, or improving a weakness. Carol Dweck calls this a fixed mindset. Overcoming learned helplessness requires repetitions in practicing your craft. Practice and reps require conflict to get better.

During high school, Steve Wozniak would design different types of computers for fun. At the time the price of a computer was the equivalent of a down payment on a house. When Jessica Livingston asked why he designed these computers over and over again getting nothing in return, he said, “I could never build one, all I could do was design them on paper and try to get better and better and better.” Each time he was creating conflict to compete against himself.

A leader is molded through continuous conflict, both internal and external.

Leadership requires you develop unconventional wisdom

The best leaders don’t fit the mold. They have unconventional backgrounds, experiences, and stories. This creates the opportunity to relate to a broad spectrum of people. Unconventional backgrounds provide an extensive library of lessons to pull from when inspiring other.

At 38 years old, David Ogilvy started his advertisement agency. When he did his resume read “Unemployed farmer, former cook, and university drop-out”, and at no point did it say “advertiser”. That advertisement agency, Ogilvy & Mather, would grow to 17,000+ employees today and become one of the largest agencies in the world.

An unconventional background symbolizes growth. Steve Jobs could be described as curiously complicated, with a love for electronics, LSD, classic literature, and Zen Buddhism. This unorthodox background gave Steve Jobs the ability to stand out as a leader. Even when people hated working for him, they never found anyone better lead them.

Take pleasure in forming and molding your character like clay. Steve Jobs had a troubled childhood, but when he took control of the process he stopped others from molding him into what they wanted.

There’s no better school than the past. When you look at the past it may be burdened by hurt, grudges, or contrast. Negativity bias causes you to put more weight on the events you’ve internalized as negative.

However, even the bad is good. Having a backwards glancing eye to the past is constant education. The struggle is forgetting the negative aspects of those events to view them objectively. Examining your mistakes or bad memories provides an unconventional perspective. The value they provide is waiting to be extracted.

Telling the third story

It’s hard to view situations for what they are when we become emotionally invested in them. In any situation there’s three stories that exist: yours, mine, and the truth. The truth is the third story.

Force yourself to take on the role of an impartial observer. In doing so you gain a deeper understanding of what others really think. You get the truth because whenever there’s more than one person involved there will be more than one reality.

Abandoned. Chosen. Special. All opposing identities Steve Jobs battled with in his youth. Steve Jobs told himself the third story saying "knowing I was adopted may have made me feel more independent, but I have never felt abandoned. I always felt special. My parents made me feel special.” This story was impartial to how he felt.

From an observer Steve was smarter than everyone else around him. He had a deep curiosity for the world. His parents did everything to support him. Abandonment wasn't in the narrative.

Effectively conveying the third story involves, as explained in Difficult Conversations, “learning to describe the gap – or difference – between your story and the other person’s story.” When you get closer to truth, you develop a deeper perspective, values, identity, and narrative.

The unconventional wisdom that will mold your leadership exists in-between the story you tell yourself and what stories others want to hear to be inspired to struggle for a common cause.


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