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Grow Your Career by Embracing Your Story

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Fresh out of college most of us are full of energy and can hardly wait to get to work, earn a paycheck, and work for an organization that is changing the world.

The reality of the job

A couple of years later, some things look different. The shiny new job has lost most of its luster as our eyes open and we accept our reality. Likely it was in front of us all the time, but we didn’t have enough experience to interpret the signs. Now we have.

What is real is the promotion we thought we would get went to a peer and we are not receiving the help and guidance on what to do to be the chosen one next time.

After taxes and other commitments, what’s left of our paycheck isn’t enough to pay for the type of home we found on Zillow. We look around and it seems our friends are doing better than us; at least most of them. The worst: the mission we read on the wall of our company doesn’t match how work gets accomplished. Instead of an agile organization led by visionaries and team collaboration, we discover a firm full of bureaucratic leaders trying to climb the corporate ladder. This is not what we thought we signed on for.

What should you do about it?

Successful people take responsibility

Don’t make yourself a victim. Instead, become a leader others want to follow. Want to make a million dollars? Solve a million-dollar problem. Want to make lasting changes? Begin today by taking the step in a direction that advances the cause. When you think about what person you want to become, are you being honest with yourself?

Mel Robbins teaches we have about five seconds to take action on an idea before we talk ourselves out of it. Remember, before we expect to lead anyone else, we must begin leading ourselves better.

Principle #1: Self Leadership

It is a fact that you cannot give what you do not possess. When we have identified the change we seek to make, we take inventory of what we have in our toolkit. And good news; everyone has something!

If you lead yourself well, you can lead your teams well.

Maximizing your talent

If you aren’t sure where you make the most impact, reach out to those who know you best.

That’s what I had to do. Early on, I asked my friends and family where they thought I added the most value to others. Ironically, my gift is recognizing abilities others have and helping them find new channels to amplify them. Your loved ones likely can help you identify your giftings.

Knowing where you do your best work and recognizing ways you uniquely add value is one aspect of leading yourself. Have you ever asked what energizes you most? If you haven’t, or not in a while, that is a conversation worth having soon!

Living your values

Instrumental to shepherding ourselves is knowing what is at our center. Values filter how we see the world, relate to people, and drive our behavior. Followers favor leaders who live with integrity. If you can’t list what you value most, I encourage you to spend a bit of time exploring what fires you up, makes you feel excited, or maybe even angry. As you do, you will probably identify what you care about most; there may even be a story or two that come to mind. We should all write our own stories.

When seeking permission to lead others, your potential followers will be interested to learn what you care about. Having a story to share can help. Your values serve as indicators of how you are likely to respond to new circumstances and treat others when things go side-ways.

The shepherd leader is clear on what they believe and why they believe it. Values are a bit different. They vary from person to person based on an individual’s giftings, experiences, and preferences. To help others see your perspective, sharing personal stories work well.

Sharing a story

We all have our favorites. Stories I often use fall into the categories of trials (hard times) and treasures (what I love) and you can explore other areas too.

Similar to what Angela Duckworth (author of Grit) writes. By definition grit is a trial is where we develop our character through perseverance.

I recall one of mine began as I was just two years into my career after graduating from college. I decided to quit and do something unexpected. At that time, I was beginning to look into the future based on my current course, didn’t like what I was seeing.

I felt troubled. I believed I should be doing something different, serving a cause bigger than my own self-interests. My answer was to join the United States Peace Corps. The government assigned me to become a small business enterprise (SED) agent. I was flown with other volunteers to Senegal, West Africa to begin my 2-year commitment.

At the time, I was 23 years old. After a three month in-country training, I had achieved only rudimentary language ability and it was time for me to go to my village assignment. In my first few months at my post, I kept studying the local language and eventually got pretty good at drawing stick people and playing charades trying to explain myself!

Admittedly, it was one of the most frustrating times in my life. To the local people, I probably sounded like a three year old. I’m sure the Senegalese got a real kick out of the funny-looking white guy from Nebraska explaining how a small business works when they had been running them just fine; well before I arrived.

During those two years, I didn’t see my family at all. With few exceptions did I leave my village. Once a week I would travel 33 km to get my mail. The mail was delivered to my PO box in a larger town where another volunteer was placed. He was a very generous person and shared special things his parents would send him on occasion. Sadly, he happened to return home after just eight months at his post and I felt really alone. In my group, quitting was not uncommon as over 50% of the people that I began training with me left the Peace Corps before their service ended.

I was alone.

The only white person I saw regularly was the one looking back at me in the mirror. The Senegalese had a special name they called me, any foreigner actually, regardless of skin color. It wasn’t to be mean; it was simply acknowledging something different and ingrained in their culture. Sometimes it would get to me, being labeled that is. Not because of the name itself, but because it made me feel like I didn’t belong. This was a good lesson for me and a reminder today when I see others trying to fit in.

Living far out in the country was both challenging and exciting. No electricity or running water. For one of the first times in my life, I learned the importance of community. It was the lifeblood of my village. I couldn’t have survived without the generosity of strangers.

I wanted to go home more times than I can remember. It would have been easy and justifiable. While I wasn’t the perfect volunteer and struggled to get things accomplished, I desperately wanted to be a person to finish my service commitment. The time spent in Africa transformed my heart in ways I couldn’t have imagined. I would not have grown in compassion for other humans had I remained in the United States. As that chapter in my life concluded, I realized leaders I would later emulate would be people that lean into their challenges in helping others succeed

Finding your story

So, what story do you want to tell? What has been difficult for you or is difficult for you right now?

Understand, people don’t want a perfect leader, they want to follow a real person who acknowledges their own imperfections. We relate to people that have faced challenges and experience failure as much or more than those who succeed. Life brings both; we all know it.

Maybe you are in a time where a new adventure is about to begin or you need to be persuaded to take action. Let me encourage you to pick up Steven Pressfield’s book, The War of Art. He shares some wisdom and identifies our struggle through what he calls “The Resistance”. And I love how he teaches us to handle fear.

“Fear is good. Like self-doubt, fear is an indicator. Fear tells us what we have to do.” — Steven Pressfield

Haven’t we all missed good opportunities when we turn away because of misplaced fear? Especially fear of what others think. Or maybe we think to ourselves we are not good enough to make a difference? Is there a problem in the world that deserves your attention?

I bet there is.

Taking action

Recognizing where we are most effective and deciding to use our giftings and abilities in the service of others can bring satisfaction and new opportunities. As we embrace our identity, communicate our stories, our voice will emerge, and our actions naturally follow.

The people close by need you and I know you can make a difference. The time of waiting is over, if you are a shepherd leader, it is time to begin picking yourself.

Becoming the leader others want to follow doesn’t happen in a day, it happens through consistent and deliberate practice over time. I will credit Seth Godin for reinforcing this lesson for me.

Shepherding is the art of becoming the leader others want to follow.


Eric Peterson currently serves as technical program manager for a Fortune 500 Financial Services Company in Denver, Colorado. In addition to his job, he volunteered to form a team that employed servant leadership principles to architect a sustainable model supporting 730 employees. The community encourages staff driven initiatives in areas that include innovation, fellowship, and personal development. He earned a BS in Finance from the University of Nebraska and a MA from Webster University in Information Technology and Resource Management. He is a values-centered leader that equips people to lead more effectively through employing servant leadership principles. He also writes a weekly blog on leadership and team building found at www.shepherdingheart.com.

Image courtesy of Alexander Suhorucov.





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