At Leadership Mindset event, John Sexton and Anna Deavere Smith explore storytelling’s power

NYU Law’s Leadership Mindset program supports the Law School’s mission of inspiring and developing in its students a lifelong practice of ethical and inclusive leadership. The initiative’s most recent event, “Defining Leadership: Telling Your Story,” featured a conversation on March 30 between two compelling personalities: John Sexton, president emeritus of NYU and dean emeritus of the Law School, and University Professor Anna Deavere Smith. Playing off their long relationship—it was Sexton who recruited Smith to the Law School—the two explored the connection between leadership and storytelling.

“What is your narrative, and how can you bring that forward when you’re hanging out your shingle?” Smith asked the lawyers in the room. “What is the truth that your journey has led you to? Why should I trust you to be my lawyer—or be my actor, or be my director? Because you’ve really learned something that’s going to make this engagement with you worthwhile.”

Sexton relies on storytelling to convince others, what he calls “evocative leadership.” For example, before accepting the NYU presidency, he sought out a framework to first convince himself that he should relinquish a satisfying deanship. The clincher turned out to be a narrative incorporating the notion of New York as a world in miniature whose range of ethnic neighborhoods represented the entire globe. In Sexton’s telling, NYU was fortunate not to be a “gated community”; rather, it was “the community that was ecosystemic with the city.”

Sexton’s stories are self-revelatory, he said—among them are narratives about his childhood; his former teacher Charlie Winans; his late wife, Lisa; and his daughter. He contrasted himself with Smith, who creates her one-woman shows by interviewing dozens of subjects and then embodying their personalities on stage: “The way Anna contrives her presentations, you learn to love the vessel.”

Smith’s work, while not specifically addressing her own backstory, still springs from it, she said. “My stories are about my journey to understand something.” Her plays are marked by her childhood growing up in a segregated community in Baltimore. Speaking of herself in the third person, Smith said, “She never had to chance to realize how serious that was until she went to South Africa and felt the type of anxiety that she tried to repress as a little girl.”

For a leader, however, knowing one’s own story is not enough. “It’s very well and good to know our narrative, but you have to observe the desire of someone else in order to bring them along,” Smith said, recalling the effectiveness of Sexton’s argument to bring her to NYU.

Sexton, acknowledging his longstanding reputation for talking big, recalled how, as both a new dean and a new president, he had encountered skepticism. But, he added, there was “a small group who would say, ‘Wait a minute, I’m beginning to get his story. And I don’t know whether I believe it yet, but I now have come to the point where I know he believes it.’ And so now you’re in the position where you’re saying to people, ‘Come along with me, but I’m giving it my life.’ So your narrative of who you are becomes blended with the professional mission that you have.”

Watch the full video of the event (1 hr, 8 min):

Posted April 18, 2016