By Jeff Shinabarger
I wanted a new car. You may have never thought about this, but as the leader of a nonprofit organization you can’t just drive any car. A used car would probably be the best choice, but my car-fixing abilities are minimal I even struggle to change a tire. So when it came time to choose a car, I started asking other people what kind of car a nonprofit leader should drive.In the end, the poll came down to two brands: a Honda or a Toyota. I will forever drive a Honda or Toyota. There’s a perception about both of these brands of being reliable, inexpensive, and not flashy. This is one of many decisions we make as leaders that create a set of perceptions about us. The perceptions of others impact how we are known.
We often try to navigate or shape these perceptions to work in our favor. We share only the best photos by setting up a shot, followed by editing that image or adding filters. Other times, for a heightened response, we pontificate about how hard life is to provoke empathy from our followers. Much of storytelling in the modern world is the art of crafting our story to shape a perception.
The problem with the information age is that we are given the power to shape what others think our lives look like every minute of every day. Is our artistic depiction of life the real landscape or a photoshopped version of ourselves?
I first realized this while writing a book. I was done with the first few chapters and sent them to my sister, Joanna, to begin the editing process. Being my older sister, Joanna has known me my entire life. She called me. Overall, she thought the chapters were good but wanted to talk to me about a couple of the stories. No matter what you do, you cant get anything past your older sister. She called me out. The stories, how I wrote them, were not completely true. In every story, I somehow became the hero even when I was not the hero. I spun the truth in favor of me.
Why do we think that making ourselves look good is what others want to see? What others actually want is an authentic depiction of a real life, full of hopes, dreams, and failures.
In contrast to the hero-focused chapters that I first sent to my sister, a couple of years ago I sent a transparent letter to our community apologizing for a failure. We had decided to end a project and felt it was important to openly share about what was happening. To this day, that letter led to the greatest response I have ever heard back from our community easily over 100 email responses filled with encouraging notes about how my honesty created relatability and nurtured a deeper belief in me as a leader.
We dont want untouchable heroes; what we want are courageous friends to share life with.
Donald Miller says, Sometimes the story we are telling the world isnt half as endearing as the one that lives inside us. The question becomes how do we come to know our true selves when we have built this habit of constantly working to shape how others perceive us?
If we can come to know ourselves truthfully, we might be able to share ourselves with others in a way that draws people in. We are all attracted to people that humbly share their tension-filled lives, not people that seem to have it altogether.
In the early nineties, Paul Feldwick defined brand in a classic way. He said, “a brand is a collection of perceptions in the consumer’s mind.” So, if a brand is equated to peoples perceptions, and we know this instinctively, then it must shape how we depict what we want others see. At a deeper level, we all want to be known for something, so we try to form that perception in how we present ourselves. If you are like me, you want to understand the perceptions of others, then determine if those perceptions are actually true.
There are three questions you should ask to help you move towards sharing what is true and to gain greater understanding of how you are currently known, personally or for your organization:
How do others perceive my personal life and my business? Ask people. Create a survey. Ask a question on social media. Host a focus group.
What are the differences between others perceptions and my true story? Sometimes it’s hard to hear what others say. It’s easy to defend your positioning. Process this question with a close advisor, friend or mentor. Select a person that won’t just tell you what you want to hear, but a person that speaks what you need to hear.
What needs to change? If the perceptions of others don’t line up with the life you are living, something needs to change. We usually either need to change how we live or change the story we are sharing with others. There is a great process we can all do to read our last 100 posts to see what we say about ourselves. This simple listening exercise will bring an awareness about what we say about ourselves. Now imagine the next 100 posts telling the truer story and start writing that for what may be next. Make a plan to speak what is true and remember that we all want to know your true story.
We can’t always control others perceptions, but let’s try to positions our lives, brands and communities as examples of courageous authenticity. We all want to live a great story and sometimes we forget that our current story is whats greatest in the minds of others.
And yes, I bought a Toyota again.