He died while most of us were asleep.
Tom Petty was not the biggest rock star on the Billboard charts, but when his amazing heart for life gave out two weeks ago, a lot of us woke up to consider what we just lost. Petty was there for millions of fans over four decades. He was that kid next door who always was ready to go outside to play, just hang out — and maybe say just the right thing at the right time to make you feel not so all alone.
Tom Petty also had story. As captured so well in a memorial on CBS Sunday Morning, we learned that young Tom had a troubled childhood — a stern dad who just did not get this creative, boundless, imaginative kid, so he tried to beat all of that out of him.
All that did was forge someone who seemed to understand the existential tension between resentment and acceptance, between hope and despair. A defiant zest for freedom and independence, but a yearning for quiet and safety.
It’s in the words of his most beloved songs:
Don’t Do Me Like That (Someone’s gonna tell you lies, Cut you down to size.)
Fault Lines (I’ve got a few of my own fault lines running under my life.)
Refugee (Everybody’s had to fight to be free, you see)
You Don’t Know How It Feels (to be me)
Don’t Come Around Here No More (Whatever you’re looking for, hey, don’t come around here no more.)
Wake Up Time (I’m just a poor boy, a long way from home.)
Won’t Back Down (You could stand me up at the gates of hell, but I won’t back down.)
Tom Petty’s personal story infused his lyrics, and they served as a gift to generations who saw their story in his own. His story gave an authenticity, even a purpose, to what he had to say.
Some people are afraid of their story. Or want to ignore it. Or pretend it doesn’t matter. Even worse, they try to edit it to fit a manufactured reality. I would suggest, as a consequence, they are not whole.
For people in leadership particularly, story matters.
You can take all the personality/behavioral/psychological assessments out there, but none is as revealing, as personal, as instructive as knowing your own story and understanding how it informs your beliefs, your motivations, your purpose in life and business.
In my coaching practice, I see myself as a story-finder. Some of the most meaningful times I’ve had with clients is when they tell their story — sometimes even to themselves. For some it is an unearthing, for others a discovery. For all, it has opened up a deeper understanding of them as people, as leaders.
Your story matters. In understanding it, you understand yourself. In understanding yourself, you better understand others. In sharing it, they better understand you.