Think Like a Leader: Creating a Life-Map

Think Like a Leader: Creating a Life-Map

“Leadership is not about me, but it starts with me.”

This “not about me” mindset requires leaders to gain an understanding of their personal leadership philosophy, how they present themselves to others, their strengths and weaknesses, and their current leadership skills. This is achieved through a thorough, reflective and often uncomfortable self examination.

A useful tool for developing that reflective mindset is the development of a Life-Map.

Here’s how to develop a Life-Map:

1. Placing

The best way to begin the process is to do a placing exercise by creating a timeline of your life, from birth to present.

Above the timeline record the major social and political events of your life. For example, I was born in 1957, so my timeline includes: JFK, Rock-n-Roll, the Civil Rights Movement and Walking on the Moon.



Below the line, record the key personal events and relationships of your life. Some things to consider are:

  • Educational experiences
  • Family situations
  • New job/career directions
  • Promotion/special projects
  • Interactions with a significant individual
  • Personal crises

Once the placing exercise is done, you now have the raw data for developing your Life-Map.

2. Classify Events

The Life Map exercise extends beyond the placing exercise by asking you to reflect on how these events and relationships impacted your personality, values, worldview and leadership style. It may be helpful to label or classify these events based on the meaning and significance each event held for you. Here are some suggested categories:

  • Milestone events are characterized as a means to an end. They are checkpoints in your life course.
  • Confirmational events affirm or disconfirm some particular attribution of your professional self, organizational or career reality.
  • Decisional events represent the decisions or choices you actively make. These events represent a conscious choice and require a high level of involvement and commitment. These decisions are based on a belief that they will result in a positive outcome that is congruent with the individual’s hopes and aspirations.
  • Transformational events shake the entire fabric of an individual’s life. Frequently they touch the very core of your being by challenging your life purpose and result in a transformation of many aspects of your life. These events provide the catalyst for profound change in direction, self-perception and worldview.
  • Crucible events are defined as trials that rupture the status quo by coming upon us unexpectedly. They force us to answer fundamental questions about our identity, values, purpose and priorities.

3. Identify the Meta-Narrative

Together, the placing exercise and event classification exercises should help you identify the meta-narrative of your life. That is, the stories about the events and relationships that shaped your view of the world and that help you make sense of the otherwise apparent randomness of life (Stanley, 2008, The Principle of the Path).

The events display a pattern that indicates the presence of certain life-orientations:

The instrumental life-orientation is characterized by a linear, straightforward way of approaching your career. Events are viewed sequentially. This mindset facilitates a focused approach and specialization in a particular area that provides both personal satisfaction and depth of experience.

The incremental life-orientation is characterized by a sense of gradual and progressive broadening that allows individuals to gain the benefits from past experience while gaining new skills, knowledge and expertise.

The challenge life-orientation is characterized by a strong sense of challenge and adventure. Individuals with a challenge mindset seek new experiences that push them to take risks, try new approaches and explore the unknown.

The learning life-orientation is characterized by a sense of ongoing learning and transformation. Events and situations provide an opportunity to learn something new. Individuals with this mindset appear to have a more complex view of themselves and use information from a wide variety of sources and encounters.

Your Meta-Narrative helps bring your Life-Map to life and give a more complete picture of your leadership style. This exercise helps you begin to develop the self-awareness that is necessary for developing your full potential as a leader. This is just a point of beginning, cultivating self-awareness is a life-long process for leaders.

J. Lee Whittington is a Professor of Management in the Satish & Yasmin Gupta College of Business at the University of Dallas. He focuses his teaching, research, and consulting in the areas of Leadership, Organizational Behavior and Spiritual Leadership.

His research has been published in The Leadership Quarterly, Journal of Management, Academy of Management Review, Journal of Organizational Behavior, Journal of Applied Social Psychology, Journal of Managerial Issues, Journal of Business Research, Journal of Business Strategy, and the Journal of Behavioral and Applied Management.

His book, Biblical Perspectives on Leadership and Organizations was published by Palgrave-Macmillan in August 2015. He is also a co-author with Tim Galpin and Greg Bell of the book, Leading the Sustainable Organization. His newest book, Enhancing Employee Engagement: An Evidence-Based Approach was co-authored with DBA students Simone Meskelis and Enoch Asare, Gupta professor Sri Beldona.

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