Whose story is it anyway?

One of the first successes in the nascent genre that came to be known as reality television was a show that started airing on MTV in 1992 called, ironically, The Real World. Without getting into a philosophical debate about the observation principle, I’m going to stipulate to the fact that reality TV is anything but a representation of common life.

The Real World started every episode with a signature statement.

This is the true story…of seven strangers…picked to live in a house…(work together) and have their lives taped…to find out what happens…when people stop being polite…and start getting real…

Although far more critically acclaimed and, arguably, of greater cinematic merit, HBO’s miniseries, Chernobyl, did, essentially, the same thing. It used a host of first-hand accounts, environmental observation, and creative editorial license to craft a narrative aimed at eliciting a particular emotional response on the part of the viewer.

A narrative is not a statement of facts, but rather a representation of an individual’s observations, as seen through the lens of their experience, shared to communicate an idea or advance an argument. Our perception informs our narrative, what could also be called our story, and our interpretation of the narratives of others. The existential question, that The Real World never overly stated and that Chernobyl placed front and center, is whether any narrative can ever be definitive truth and, if it is, who gets to lay claim to that truth.

I started this blog for a variety of reasons, both simple and complex. Knowing that there’s nothing gossip loves more than a vacuum, I wanted to share my story, as I am living it. You could call this an attempt to control the narrative, and you wouldn’t be wrong. I know that people talk and that one of people’s favorite topics is other people, particularly those things that could be regarded as strange about or wrong with others. I know this because I am human, and I engage in gossip. In my experience, those who enjoy gossiping the most tend to be those who most staunchly express their disdain for it. We humans are wonderfully hypocritical.

My absence at work raises questions. I’m not self-important enough to believe that my presence (or lack thereof) in the office will shake the foundation of the earth, but I do know that at least a few people will wonder what’s up. My team remains at work in the office. More than my concern over people gossiping about me—furthering the stigma of mental health and depression—is my awareness that leaving a void of information would put the onus on my colleagues to either have to tell (and retell) a story they may not feel is theirs to share or require them to lie, by admission or omission, in order to deflect inquiries that should never have been directed at them in the first place. Walking away in silence means forcing my team to do emotional labor that I myself was unwilling to do. That does not fit my definition of leadership. So, yes, part of my purpose in being public about my experience is to keep others from having to feel responsible for it and, by extension, potentially believe they are accountable for the preservation of my self image (what, in popular management jargon, we call a brand). It’s neither right nor fair for me to put them in that position.

Chernobyl questioned the cost of lies. In a sense, I’m questioning the cost of truth, or at least my version of it. Ultimately, what will telling my truth cost me?*

Regular readers of this blog, of whom I have been delighted to discover that I have a few, may have noticed that I do not name the commercial organization for which I work anywhere on this site. The reason is simple, it’s not relevant. If anyone’s curious, Google can readily provide details.

The professional services industry—and I am counting doctors, lawyers, accountants, and management consultants in this group—is homogeneous in terms of the challenges we face.**

As a burgeoning organizational leadership scholar (more on that later), my default is to blame the amorphous organism that is “leadership”. However, that spreads blame like peanut butter, paving over the root causes of the challenges. Lest I arrive at a declarative moment à la Soylent Green, let me pause this train of thought here by saying that, although human instinct is to externalize fault across as wide a base as possible, it doesn’t do any good in the long run.

Which brings us back to The Real World, Chernobyl, and the role of narratives in our lives. The textbook definition of leadership is the act of exerting influence*** over one or more people (which may include the leader, individually—more on how people self-lead at another time).

As individuals, we come to have influence over ourselves and others by telling stories. Fundamentally, leadership is the art and science of telling stories that inspire action.

This raises a slew of ethical questions. Whose story is being told? What right do we have to the stories of others? Can we reframe (we like it) or manipulate (we don’t) someone else’s story to benefit our own? What if it really isn’t co-opting another’s story as much as using it as a reference? At some point, the questions themselves begin to create their own narratives of justification.

Yesterday, a well-intentioned member of my network shared my blog on LinkedIn. I’m thankful for that because, for the purposes of my own narrative, I want what I write here to help as many people as possible. The introductory commentary the person added was what inspired this post. It furthered a narrative that my personal act of telling my story was part of an effort by the firm for which I work to challenge the stigma around mental health.

Here’s the thing, this action to counter the stigma is me, not the organization. Mine is not a story to which the organization can lay claim, either in whole or in part.

None of this is to say that I have not been and do not continue to be supported by and through the organization, collectively, as well as by individuals within it. The point is that we all must be aware of the stories we tell, consume, believe, and act upon.

I am not upset at the person who shared the link, nor am I shocked that my story may be used to advance other narratives. Instead, I am alerted to a systemic issue. Appropriation of stories that are not ours, may lead to others believing a narrative that is not an accurate representation of the original lived experience.

In professional services, we face an especially challenging scenario because we are in the business of telling stories, of crafting narratives, whether out of numbers, laws, or flesh and bone. As a result, our own stories form the foundation of our professional credibility.

What we have to ask ourselves is why, seemingly, so many of us are suppressing our stories or convincing ourselves of false narratives in an attempt to continue on our present courses. This is not something that any organization can address. People care about other people, legal entities don’t.

Before I get a rash of messages citing employee wellness programs and assistance hotlines, let me say this: I am not talking about programs or services. I am talking about fostering a culture in which a leader publicly talking about her depression is not a single data point.

We are our stories and we see each other through stories. As human beings, we have a tendency to appropriate the stories of others to fit our own narratives, and, although the intention may be good, the act of doing so isn’t right.

*There is an entire further conversation to be had about how the cost I bear is automatically, as a result of structural inequities that permeate our society, less than that of others who do not share my socioeconomic status or skin color. However, I cannot do justice to that topic in this confined space. Regardless, it is there and it is real.

**My instinct here is to follow that statement up with a fragile and defensively rigorous recitation of all the good things that we have and continue to do, but, again, it’s not relevant. The good we do neither offsets nor neutralizes the problems we have.

***Keep in mind that the only difference between the word “influence” and the word “manipulation” is whether it fits your personal narrative.

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