Leaders Create the Future from the Past

Leaders Create the Future from the Past

Jerome Bruner (1915 – 2016) was an American psychologist who made significant contributions to human cognitive psychology and cognitive learning theory. Its barely a year since his passing and he was an inspiration through his writing to so many people in a very wide range of disciplines. Though he is not well known in the field of corporate leadership development he has had a huge influence on my understanding of how narrative is one of two ways of knowing the world. The other is through analysis. I think he has much to contribute to leadership development and in particular, to the leadership craft of telling the "Where are we going?" story.

Bruner had a wonderful way of explaining what happens when the best of the old informs the search for the new. His understanding of this unique form of creativity is captured in his quote: "One has to learn how to figure out how to use what you already know in order to go beyond what you already think." This is a bit of a koan, a riddle used in Zen Buddhism, but after thinking about it I was instructed in the following ways:

  • Re authoring our story of self: When we get hit with new events, challenges, setbacks, losses of people we love, we literally have to re-story ourselves to integrate and therefore create ourselves anew. We always keep some of what we were but through deeper reflection from the vantage point of today looking back, we can see new things, make new choices and these insights can help us to go beyond the new wrinkle life has thrown us.

One has to learn how to figure out how to use what you already know in order to go beyond what you already think.

  • Leaders never disavow the past they build on it: When leaders are sharing a public story of where we are going, they have to be able to rediscover and reinterpret what’s come before as a way to develop a new path to what comes next. Often people will not commit to a path forward if they are unable to see at least some familiar foot prints on the beginning of the path.
  • Values expansion requires cycling back to foundational values: What I know from values theory and my own life is that when we are faced with challenges, loss, aging, change, we go back to the values that have been a part of our earliest influences. Sometimes this return is to heal something, to say good bye to something and in that process, we transform our understanding of the values that have guided us up to now. The values that call us into the future and our aspirations are now much clearer because they stand on the shoulders of a renewed and rich understanding of our most fundamental values.

As another wise one we have lost, Angeles Arrien (1940 – 2014), once said, "Change reminds us who we really are."

If a leader can be reflective, understand where they personally and the team or organization have been, they can re-fashion the understanding of where we have been in such a way that they provide the self-belief and hope needed to face almost any challenge.

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My Story is My Path

Resources for all those called to leadership who understand the power of words and stories to shape their futures from one of the nation’s preeminent narrative coaches, Christine Cavanaugh-Simmons of CCS Consulting Inc.

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