Origin Story


My colleague Erika Davis and I were recently guests on Alex Canavan’s podcast, Cultivate. Alex is an impressive young leader here in Syracuse with a passion for bringing people together. Her focus is on female leaders, and she herself has a voracious appetite for learning and development, an attribute all successful leaders share. The focus of the episode was on universal leadership principles, those qualities that are valuable to anyone, in any role. In preparation for the recording, I was asked to reflect on the origin story of Emergent and myself and to explain how I found success in this business.

As I was thinking about what’s most important to share in an origin story, I recalled Stephen Covey‘s principle of keeping the end in mind. An origin story explains where we come from, but isn’t it just as important to consider where we’re going? When we begin anything–a new project, a new business, or even a new career–we set goals and aspirations for ourselves. Without sounding too cliché, I believe this process isn’t so much about getting to a “destination” as it is about setting an intention for the journey.

One of Covey’s first exercises in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People is suggested in his section on “Proactivity,” and focuses on keeping the end in mind. The exercise is as morbid as it is powerful: it asks us to write what someone would say about us at our funeral! Our accomplishments, our life story, our most meaningful relationships, etc…the eulogy is the final evaluation, when the book of our deeds is closed once and for all. Ultimately, Covey is asking us to consider what we want to accomplish with our limited time. Where do we want to find ourselves at the end of the process? More importantly, what can we do proactively, in the present moment, to help us actualize our intentions? By thinking of the final end, we are reminded of the essential now.

But I was asked for an origin story, so why am I reflecting on the end?

I began to recognize that every beginning starts with an ending. William Bridges, in his book Transitions, shares this idea. (By the way, how perfect is it that a man named Bridges wrote a book about transitions? Turns out nominative determinism is alive and well in the leadership development genre!) Bridges reminds us that, philosophically, there are no beginnings and no endings. Life is a continuous string of energetic experiences that we usually can’t make sense of until long after the fact. What felt like a big step in the direction of your dreams turned out to be a dead end; conversely, a seemingly inconsequential conversation led you to a major breakthrough. The workings of cause and effect are much bigger than our limited powers. If there’s such a thing as an origin story, it emerges from the friction between our intentions and reality, in the continual adjustments and recalibrations we make to reach the end we’ve imagined. Since we are always in the process of becoming, our origin is not something in the remote past, but an ever-present unfolding.

I recognize that people want to understand how great things get done, where ideas come from, and how successful organizations begin. I think this is particularly true about leaders, who have a penchant for curiosity; this is likely why Alex asked for my origin. But just as our goals for the future change as we learn and grow, so does our understanding of the past.

Sharing how we got to where we are can be informative, influential, and inspiring to others who might be on a similar path. Even when others’ paths aren’t all that similar, sharing your story can help demystify leadership. This is the mission of my video podcast “Driving Leadership,” where I have a conversation with a leader about their origin story. I hope to demystify leadership in a way that makes the process more approachable for everyone. Of course, this is not limited to formal leadership; I love to hear everyone’s stories, because the way people talk about how they became who they are says a great deal about their experiences.

But it’s important to avoid letting the stories we tell about ourselves become set in stone. I like it best when the story is authentic and not overly scripted. I tend to learn something very important about a person when they’re talking off the cuff about what’s brought them to this very moment. They share discoveries about what has worked for them in life and what has not gone as well as they’d have liked–at times, these discoveries are verbalized for the first time in the interview! When the conversation is open and real, I get to learn about their approach to life, their philosophy, and what they value most. The way somebody explains their origin story might change from month to month as they reflect, grow, and refine their intentions. This is the real power of being present: it helps us better understand the past, and leads us into the future with curiosity and openness.

Early on in every coaching engagement at Emergent, we conduct a Discovery Process to understand where our client is coming from and what significant patterns there may be in their lives that they can leverage for future success. This builds trust and understanding and points to potential paths to discover along the coaching experience. We use the word discovery not just because we, the coaches, are learning new things about our clients, but because our clients are learning new things about themselves. An origin story is nothing more or less than the words a person uses to describe the complex sequence of events that brought them to where they are. Great leaders learn from the past and from the past of others; the best leaders know that the past is a moving target. The more we learn and grow, the more the past has to teach us. Our origin story isn’t written in ink in a dusty journal; it overlaps with our present and future in watercolors that will never quite dry.

Your story is your story and that makes it valuable, important, and worthy of respect from everyone you share it with. Just don’t be surprised if you find it expressing itself in new ways as you further develop as a leader and as a human!

If you’re interested in using knowledge of your past to shape your future, send me an email at bill@getemergent.com. I’d be happy to help.

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1 Comment

  1. Newell Eaton on February 26, 2024 at 9:33 am

    Guess you can’t get paint out of your psyche after all those years😎
    Thanks for the reminders from 7/8 habits. Big insights so clearly presented. I need to go back for a revisit..

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