Understand Your Personal History to Be a Better Leader
Updated: Nov 16
Our past experiences shape who we are. Self-aware leadership requires a deep understanding of our personal history.
How Your Past Shapes Your Present & Future: The Power of Personal History
At Starling, we really value self-awareness. We think it's the key to becoming a leader who can make happier and healthier workplaces. To build self-awareness, understanding our personal history is crucial.
What is personal history? It includes all the experiences you've had, the things and people that have influenced you, and various background details. These elements combine to shape who you are, your personality, what you value, and how you act. Your personal history is as unique to you as your fingerprint.
Many of us think we know our own history because, well, it's OUR story. But, we usually pay more attention to the happy parts - the times that made us feel strong, joyful, or fulfilled. This understanding is valuable, but it only tells a part of the story. To really understand our history, we also have to look at the parts that weren't so great, including the elements that have brought us fear or anxiety. This part of self-reflection can be particularly hard and emotional, but it’s also important.
Those who understand their past are better equipped to manage themselves and their futures. While this might sound a bit Orwellian, at Starling, we believe it’s true (and a good thing!).
The Importance of Understanding Your Personal History
Understanding our personal history can help us make sense of why we do the things we do. But the benefits don’t stop there. Understanding your background helps build trust and credibility with others through authenticity. You can also make more informed decisions by knowing your biases and being aware of your privilege. Understanding the challenges you’ve overcome can help you build empathy and be more compassionate to others' struggles. And, last but not least, looking back on all you’ve accomplished can help you build resilience and adaptability. It’s like a whole superpower!
One caveat on personal history: Your personal history doesn't have to define who you are today or in the future. You can change. Also, sometimes our personal history doesn't help us make sense of things, and that's OK. In fact, some people are of the opinion that it doesn't even really matter why we are the way we are. The more important thing is to understand who we are and what to do with that. We reccomend looking at your personal history as one piece of the larger puzzle of who you are!
Want to Be a Better Leader? Your Personal History Influences How You Lead
What about when it comes to leadership? Well, if the above factors aren’t enough to convince you that understanding your personal history is an important aspect of being a better leader, consider that all of the above contribute to a leadership style that is reflective, considerate, and effective.
It’s also worth emphasizing how important it is for a leader to be aware of and acknowledge their privilege. Every human being experiences some amount of privilege. But some experience more than others. Being aware of our privilege can help build empathy and better manage the impact of unconscious bias – something that is especially important for those leading and managing others.
A quick Google search will show that there are lots of resources available to help unpack our privilege. If you’re relatively new to the concept, you can start with the 5 Main Types of Privilege from Hive Learning and dig deeper with Social Identities and Systems of Oppression from the National Museum of African American History & Culture. If you’re looking for something that is more applied, check out the Diversity Toolkit: A Guide to Discussing Identity, Power, and Privilege from the MSW@USC program at the University of Southern California.
The Elements of Our Personal History
Our personal history is comprised of a variety of elements, including:
Family Background and Early Life Experiences: The environment and circumstances in which we were raised significantly impact who we are. Family dynamics, parental roles, and early social interactions can influence traits like empathy, communication styles, and decision-making approaches.
Cultural Influences: Our cultural background deeply affects our perspectives. Cultural values and norms shape attitudes toward authority, teamwork, and conflict resolution.
Education and Academic Experiences: Formal education and informal learning experiences contribute to our critical thinking skills and problem-solving abilities. The type of education and the subjects studied also influence our interests and our ability to connect disparate pieces of information.
Professional and Career Development: Our work history, including the roles we’ve held, the challenges we’ve faced, our achievements, and our colleagues, shapes our leadership skills and management style.
Personal Challenges and Resilience: Overcoming personal adversities and challenges can significantly influence our resilience, adaptability, and ability to cope with stress and uncertainty.
Social and Peer Influences: Interactions with peers and social groups throughout life influence our attitudes and behaviors toward others.
These factors, along with a whole host of other things, are the elements that shape how we show up in the world and the stories we tell others about ourselves.
Understanding Your Personal History
By now, hopefully, we’ve convinced you that getting as clear a picture as you can of your personal history is worthwhile. If you’re ready to start exploring, here are some steps to guide you in your journey:
Reflect on Your Childhood and Family Background: Recall your earliest memories, family dynamics, and significant childhood events. Consider how your family’s values, communication styles, and behaviors influenced your own beliefs and behaviors.
Explore Cultural and Community Influences: Consider how your cultural background has influenced your worldview, values, and leadership style. Think about the impact of your community, social groups, and peers on your development.
Analyze Educational and Professional Experiences: Look back at your education, noting any significant moments, teachers, or subjects that impacted you. Review your career path, including key decisions, turning points, successes, and failures. Reflect on how these experiences have shaped your professional identity and skills.
Identify Personal Challenges and Resilience: Think about the major challenges and obstacles you’ve faced in life. Reflect on how you responded to these challenges and what they taught you about resilience, adaptability, and problem-solving.
Seek Feedback from Others: Ask for feedback from family, friends, colleagues, and mentors about your strengths, weaknesses, and how they perceive your growth and development. Listening to others’ perspectives can provide valuable insights into aspects of your personal history you may not have considered.
Connect the Dots: Look for the patterns and themes in your history that have shaped who you are today.
As with so many other aspects of self-awareness, understanding your personal history is not a one-time task. As you evolve, so will your understanding of how your past shapes your present and future.
At Starling, we believe that great leadership requires self-awareness. Understanding our personal history is an important aspect of self-awareness, and it’s worth spending time reflecting on the experiences that have shaped us.
If you’d like a more structured approach to discovering your personal history, take a look at Starling’s Knowing Yourself course, where we’ve built an entire module focused on personal history.