Insight article

The value in Values

If you ask people about their values you might hear a slew of words: humility, loyalty, commitment. But what do these words really mean? When we speak of values abstractly, they risk becoming vague categories that mean different things to different people, or worse, carry little meaning at all.

For the past several years I’ve worked with Marshall Ganz at Harvard University coaching Public Narrative, which uses storytelling as a values-based leadership practice. Marshall wisely says, “Narrative is not talking “about” values; rather narrative embodies and communicates those values.” Stories ground our values in experience rather than abstraction, preserving their true meaning and conveying not only what they are but also where they came from.

We’re used to telling stories to other people; it is, after all, how humans have always interacted with each other. But what is often overlooked is the value in looking to our own stories to understand our purpose and motivation. We are often asked about what we do, what we’ve done, and what we plan to do.

Less often are we asked why. Why did we choose the path we’re on in the first place and what choices and events in our life led us there? What calls us to our work and what keeps us committed to it?

For me, delving into my own story helped me see connective threads in my life that years of reflection had missed. I remember sharing three disparate stories – or so I thought: one about growing up moving around (America, Australia, Singapore), one about teaching English to immigrants in New York, and a third about serving in the Peace Corps in Paraguay.

My narrative coach listened, probed with curious questions, then loosely re-capped my stories back-to-back. I suddenly saw it: the value that connected them all. My transient upbringing had often left me feeling like an outsider. When my family moved to Singapore, I was a seven-year-old American of Indian descent with a raging Australian accent.

I grew to value a sense of belonging. It drove me to want to create spaces for others to feel connected across difference, which I saw reflected in my other two stories. Identifying this core value that had been motivating me for years was a powerful realization. It changed the way I talked about my work, making it easier for me to explain why it was important and to better connect to people in the process. It grounded me as both a person and a leader.

I became a teaching fellow and coach of Public Narrative because I wanted to pass it on – to help others connect with their own stories and values as I had. I’ve worked with a range of diverse people from university students to non-profit leaders, and from grassroots organizers to corporate executives. As a coach, I ask guided questions to help people explain what calls them to leadership: to identify key choice points, challenges, and hope, and to share it through the art of storytelling.

But when asked why they chose to do what they do, people often say, “I just fell into this.”

And it’s true, we sometimes fall into things based on circumstance or sheer chance. But the question then remains: so why did you choose to stay?

This usually unearths a different kind of answer and a change in perspective. To “fall into” something is passive, like we didn’t have much say in the matter. Explaining why we “chose” to stay, on the other hand, helps people reclaim their sense of agency, leaving them feeling empowered by their own stories and the values that drive them. Leonardo Da Vinci aptly said: “…people of accomplishment rarely sat back and let things happen to them. They went out and happened to things.”

Across all contexts, I’ve found that one thing always holds true: when a person can identify and narrate the experiences that shaped their values, they feel more grounded, inspired with purpose, and better able to connect with others on a human level.

One such person I worked with was an executive fundraiser for an arts organization who had been working effectively at her job for over 10 years. She came into our workshop skeptical, wondering why she was wasting her valuable time on a narrative workshop; she was a seasoned writer who already understood the importance of storytelling, especially in fundraising. But as the day went on and we continued coaching her, she opened up and was surprised by how deeply the process impacted her.

This woman told us about her father – her absolute hero in the world – who had instilled in her a love for music from an early age, and who had passed away a few years before. He was a very successful accountant and business owner, but at the end of his life, he told her that if he could do it all again, he would have been a musician. She remembered how when he was healing after each of his many surgeries, he’d blast symphony music or his favorite French operas from his stereo while laying back in his leather recliner, eyes closed, waving a pen around as his conducting baton.

As she shared these stories, she took us on a journey, helping us understand and connect with her as a person – but she was also journeying herself. She realized how closely her passion for art and music was tied to her love for her father. More importantly, she realized her work of fundraising for the arts was actually her way of honoring her dad.

This woman, who had spent most of her career writing about and celebrating the stories of others, left the workshop with a deeper understanding of how her own story impacted her life’s work.

Another example comes from a man who planned to enter politics. His reasons were simple: he grew up watching the news and politics and always wanted to become a politician. He spoke about his goals rather matter-of-factly and with little personal connection. In short, his political aspirations lacked a human element. As I began coaching him, he skirted my questions about the challenges he’d faced and the times he’d felt vulnerable; he glossed over it all saying everything was fine — it had always been fine.

It took a few weeks (and a great deal of patience on both our ends) before he finally opened up and shared his painful stories of being bullied and feeling excluded as a kid. He had been smaller than his peers and often felt overlooked, like his voice wasn’t being heard.

At first, he found little connection between these childhood stories and his drive for politics. But he eventually realized he’d always wanted to be a politician for the people – not just to be in politics, but to give voice to those who weren’t being heard. This realization dramatically changed the way he spoke about his goals: his focus shifted from “becoming a politician” to the people he hoped to serve, and onto his clear value of using power to give voice to those without. It brought him down to earth in a way, grounding his leadership in his values and helping him communicate that connection to other people through stories.

I have seen so many examples of both personal and professional transformations through this work of storytelling. It is really the point of the business. Stories help us put the value back in our values. There is always something magical in the moment someone discovers their own why; but even more exciting is how it will change their approach to their work, their teams, their leadership, and their life.

*These stories were shared with the permission of the participants. 

Anita Krishnan
Associate of The Storytellers.


Anita Krishnan