As the saying goes, all history is revisionist. The history of a society, as understood in its collective memory, continually integrates new facts and interpretations of the events that are commonly understood as history. As a leadership development practitioner, the current reckoning with our history has felt like a collective and messy act of building awareness.
In our work with leaders, we describe the practice of building awareness as truly understanding who we are. We help leaders to explore the events in our lives that have shaped us and consider the significance of those events. We look for the connections between those events and the values and beliefs that we hold, and we help leaders learn to make conscious choices about how our values guide our actions. For those committed to ongoing growth and development, this is an iterative, ongoing process of becoming our best selves.
In this individual work, and perhaps in our collective work, these three ideas stand out:
1. Memory is faulty and subtly altered over time
Neuroscientists have found that for individuals, the more we recall an event, the more likely it is that we have subconsciously altered its details to fit our state of mind at the time. Each time we replay the memory, it gets infused with our current understanding of ourselves and the world, and with other experiences we’ve had or learned about. Studies of memories associated with the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the US showed that a significant number of people held the memory of having seen the video footage of the attacks on the day they occurred. Media records showed that in fact, the footage was first shown on the following day.
2. We decide what meaning to attach to our memories
When we recall events of the past, we can choose how to frame those memories in the way that best serves our desire to live our values and reach our full potential. The meaning we attach to events of the past can also change over time as we change and grow. The story of the event is determined by the storyteller, whether that is us or someone else recounting history. Our story may describe us as the victim or the villain – and the role and meaning we attach affects our sense of our self, and may cause us to feel “stuck” or hindered from moving forward.
While it is important to acknowledge the event and its significance, re-framing the story we tell can be a powerful way of freeing ourselves to continue to grow. If we were the victim, how do we heal the pain we felt and tell the story of our resilience? If we were the villain in the story, how do we repair the harm we may have caused and tell the story of what we learned from our mistake?
3. We have the power to choose our future actions
C.S. Lewis is often quoted “You can’t go back and change the beginning, but you can start where you are and change the ending.” The real power comes in taking action. Values Based Leaders use their core values to serve as a guide for leading with courage and making conscious choices. Our values are shaped by our experiences, but we ultimately decide how they will guide our path forward. If awareness asks “who are you,” action asks “who are you called to be?”
For those committed to ongoing growth and development, the work of examining our story and the values and beliefs that guide us is never really done. The meaning we make of our lives is always being shaped and changed by our lived experiences and by our connections with others. Reckoning with our past in order to make better choices is both the challenge and the opportunity as leaders and as a community. May we have the grace, authenticity, and tenacity to grow into our best selves, both individually and collectively.