What Writing Taught Me About Leading

by Deborah Burns
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I thought I knew everything about the world of work, and the leadership qualities that made it hum. After all, I spent a career as a creative marketer, championing and improving brands, motivating teams to find clever solutions, and inspiring people to think their way out of whatever box they were in.

Ultimately, as the Chief Innovation Officer for a global publishing giant—just in time for the death match between print magazines and their digital future—my company had to invent what was next if we were going to survive.

I needed to lead effectively more than ever before, and if I ever got stuck along the way, I just searched for answers. Leadership lessons are so plentiful, those two simple words produce an astonishing 273 million Google results. Whether through my own experience, or the experience of millions of others, anything anyone needs to know is out there for the learning. There seemed to be nothing missing, nothing new or original that could add any value.

Until now. When my industry was crumbling and needed to be reinvented, I thought it was the moment to also reinvent myself. Disruptive times call for such measures, and to move forward, I decided to look back at how a key relationship shaped my life. To my surprise, I ended writing, then publishing that story. But there was one more thing that astonished me.

Writing slowly revealed unexpected ideas about leadership that had been hidden from me until that point. When I authored that book, I suddenly saw that the creative writing process itself—and all its fundamentals and iterations—allowed me to make meaningful analogies to the business world.

There were five critical leadership lessons I discovered from the experience. Each one gets to the essence of people and ideas in order to make progress possible. Equally important, each lesson helps to uncover opportunities that exist only in the white space between things.

So, since life is a story, here’s a new twist that should enhance any leader’s performance:

Embrace the Narrative Arc. A company or a team is nothing more than people with a collective quest—in a story arc of their own, and with a flow every leader must go with. The team’s “ordinary world” at work is always disrupted by some inciting incident that establishes the quest and, just as author Joseph Campbell’s codified in “The Hero’s Journey,” the team will experience ups-and-downs on the road to fulfillment. From Star Wars to the Wizard of Oz, every movie uses the same roadmap. Things will get worse, then worse again as obstacles abound. Then, suddenly, a glimmer of hope. And finally, there will be a new world full of evolution, growth, and redemption—in the work world, that translates into a successful solution.

Understand Your Characters. Be aware of team member’s perspective, perceptions, misperceptions, agendas, and motives. Human nature, nurture, and needs are the drivers of everything at work and in life, and unless you understand individual and group dynamics, you cannot lead as well as you might. So, tune-in, turn on your intuition, listen more to what is unsaid than said, and be an observer—just like a writer would.

Step into the Unknown. To solve any quest, you must step into the unknown because that’s where the new waits. But the unknown is just that, and it requires discovery, experimentation, and finessing. So, just like a book is, a project is all in the editing—get the first draft of any idea down. Then get feedback, collaborate, tweak, and revise until all the parts combine into a new whole.

Look Under Stones, but Pebbles and Rocks Too. A storyline has to be unpredictable and counter-intuitive to be interesting, and the answer a team seeks often is as well. So, make sure team members keep things interesting by being open to plot twists; that they look for the positives, the relatable, the analogous; and that they study something completely unrelated to then apply learnings to the task they have at hand.

Welcome Conflict. A story without conflict and obstacles and antagonists is a giant bore. And without those same three elements that are a part of every story, team results will be tepid and unproductive. Embrace healthy conflict and competition to yield the greatest outcomes; remember to shake hands with different personas and opinions to take the work higher.

Thinking like a writer will also shed light on what makes you you. Situations that challenged my childhood actually ended up making me the motivated, imaginative, agile, collaborative corporate leader I became. So, here’s one life lesson also inspired by the writing process:

Embrace Your Perceived Weaknesses. To be compelling at work or at home, every character must have imperfections and vulnerabilities—shadows, so to speak. So, know this: whatever you feel is a secret; whatever shames you, will probably turn out to be your greatest power (just like any protagonist in a novel).

As with the Japanese art of Kintsugi—where broken pottery is repaired with gold to make the cracks beautifully visible and essential to the piece’s story—the threads of my past were indeed golden and filled the chips to create a new whole. And those cracks have illuminated, enhanced, and eased my forward path.

So, my advice? Know thyself, and use everything that has come before to your advantage.

Think like a writer, and you’ll lead like a winner.

Deborah Burns
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