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Do You Know Your Personal Leadership Story?

GM CEO Mary Barra

The business world was abuzz this week when General Motors appointed Mary Barra as its first-ever female CEO.

Any time a company as big as GM names a CEO, it’s newsworthy. The fact that Barra is the first woman to hold this position certainly adds a degree of excitement to the story.

Still, while much of the business media was celebrating Barra’s gender, I was struck by another aspect of this event. Specifically, the remarkable personal leadership story that accompanies her appointment. In short, Barra is a living, breathing example of the American dream.

Barra comes from humble beginnings, which many of us can immediately relate to. Her father was a Finnish immigrant who worked at GM in Detroit for 39 years as a die maker. She started working for the automaker when she was 18 years old, eventually enrolling in General Motors Institute (now known as Kettering University) to study science. She also earned a GM fellowship at the Stanford School of Business, where she obtained her MBA.

Over a 33-year career, Barra held a number of executive posts, including vice president of global human resources and, most recently, vice president of product development.

Why is Barra’s personal leadership story so important? For the same reasons that it’s important for any leader. As I outline in my book, The Leadership Contract, these are the key experiences that shape us all as leaders, from our early childhood through our adult years.

Part of your leadership story will include specific successes, those times you have been at your best. Other parts of your leadership narrative will focus on failures and the tough lessons that come with them. They are the moments that give us clarity about how we became leaders, and why we lead the way we do.

This is not simply an academic pursuit. Rather it’s a narrative that should be shared with others. It’s an important way for us as leaders to connect with all the people we lead. Frankly, it gives them a clear idea of what makes you tick, and how you came to be the leader you are today.

Let’s face it, the appointment of a new CEO can be an unnerving experience for any large organization. Concern can run rampant when employees do not know anything about the new chief.

At GM, employees at the very least have the comfort of knowing the new CEO is someone who has been with the company through good times and bad. Barra’s connection to the company is baked into her family history. Although some may not agree with every decision she has, or will, make as CEO, there is the knowledge that she is one of them.

If you haven’t already done so, jot down the seminal moments in your development as a leader. Make specific reference to those leaders and mentors who helped shape your values. Identify those who were role models who embodied the best ideals of leadership, and those who served as cautionary examples of bad leadership. I’ve created a free workbook that helps anyone create their own personal leadership story. Download it and use it to help you define who you are as a leader.

This week’s Gut Check is pretty simple: Can you recount your own leadership story?

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About the Author

Vince Molinaro is a speaker, consultant, executive at Lee Hecht Harrison, and author of the New York Times bestseller The Leadership Contract now in its third edition.

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