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How Security Leaders Can Use Their Own Stories

Stories wield immense power. They capture emotions and make the listener think. They often motivate us to imitate, or to refrain. They can move people into action.

For these reasons, stories offer great value for security leaders. Stories based on a leader’s own personal history, experience, and career can trigger emotions in listeners that convince and energize them to make necessary decisions and take important steps. And stories cement one’s legacy; those who have nothing to tell will be forgotten sooner than those who have something to say. But many security leaders and managers can do a better job of using their own stories than they have in the past.

In job interviews, conversations with recruiters, consultations with supervisors, performance evaluations, and department staff meetings, it is common for employees to discuss their professional experiences and accomplishments in order to demonstrate their abilities and potential. Perhaps the quintessential example of this occurs when you are in a job interview, and the interviewer asks you to describe a situation in which you succeeded in dealing with a problem at work. 

During such situations, conversations do not have to be limited to professional accomplishments. You may also weave in personal stories, such as how you developed certain skills because of personal experiences, or how you discovered your different strengths and abilities, or how a life situation offered you a new and valuable perspective. Successful business leaders learn how to apply these personal stories to situations outside the job interview, allowing them to connect with stakeholders and employees and to demonstrate their expertise in a relatable way. These stories often have much to offer as motivational tools and teaching aides. They can even help make security proposals more compelling to board members and C-suite executives.

Let's have a closer look at this, using the careers and life histories of three security managers as examples.

The Inner Compass 

Paul has been a policeman for several years, and he has always had good instincts in difficult situations. He has what some call the sixth sense or a gut feeling; he immediately notices when something seems wrong.

One day on patrol, Paul and his colleague were called to a traffic accident in the city center. Upon arrival, the incident seemed to be a conventional one. Both officers took care of their assigned tasks: securing and photographing the site and interviewing all those involved. On the surface, things seemed normal, yet Paul had a gut feeling that something was not right. He called for reinforcements. When they arrived, the vehicles were searched more thoroughly. 

Paul’s instinct was right. 

While checking one vehicle, an officer discovered photos and documents relating to a colleague at the police department. Included were photos of the officer’s family, house, and surroundings—even his dog. There were also notes about his and his wife’s daily routine, and details of the children's weekly activities.

Eventually, the investigation revealed that the people involved in the accident had been hired by a man who wanted revenge on the colleague’s family, because the officer had helped arrest and convict the suspect’s relative. The people in the accident had been hired to kill the officer’s wife and abduct his children. These intended crimes were prevented because Paul trusted his intuition.

Now, let’s say Paul is interviewing for a security administrator position with a private sector firm. He tells the interviewer the story above, about his sixth sense and how it has helped him foil crimes. To the interviewer, this story may demonstrate that Paul has an intuitive feeling for situations that remain hidden from most managers. This talent could save an entire organization from damage, and it gives the company a competitive advantage. 

Paul gets the job. Early in his tenure, he participates in a meeting about the various personal threats company employees might face and the appropriate defense measures. Here, Paul’s sixth sense story may also be useful. In a compelling way, the story illustrates how situational factors often cannot be seen or known at first, but they should be considered when formulating strategy regarding possible threats and responses. 

This could help convince cautious, critical executives of the seriousness of a comprehensive approach to threats. As a result, a forward-looking, proactive approach might be adopted by leadership to ensure a secure companywide environment. This could strengthen the link connecting business processes with security considerations, which often helps in saving costs and preventing damage.

Paul’s story also demonstrates how taking responsibility for security can mean paying attention to things that are not always easy to explain. And it is an emotionally powerful reminder of the value of intuitive feelings in vulnerable situations.

Many former law enforcement officers can take the same approach as Paul when entering the security field. Thanks in large part to their training, education, and professional experiences, most officers are adept at reacting appropriately in tricky situations and know how to protect others from damage.

Their singular experiences can often be the basis for powerful stories. Stories that include astute actions in potentially dangerous situations can be especially impressive and influential to employees, colleagues, and executives who have not had such experiences. And they can also be an opportunity to memorably communicate one's own values—something that is often forgotten in today's dynamic market economy. 

Common values among law enforcement offices often include the importance of protecting people and their environments from potential danger. These values, in turn, are prized by many companies, because they are a prerequisite for fulfilling most business goals. Other common law enforcement values such as respect, discipline, order, honesty, reliability, professionalism, trust, and courage are also held in high regard in the business world. Many see these as values that turn managers into leaders and role models.

Project Manager Extraordinaire 

Maria, 28, is a security manager for a large company. Her company can afford to hire its own security staff to manage corporate security at several locations. To many, hers seems to be a great job, yet she is dissatisfied. She does not find her work to be highly engaging, and she feels that much of her professional potential is going unused. 

As the single mother of a young boy, she learned to take responsibility and deal with difficult situations at an early age. She became a mother soon after her university graduation, and later separated from her husband. 

As it happens, Maria’s security department coordinates not only the standard security services but also the emergency management and crisis management functions. Maria is one of the youngest workers on the team, and she has something some of her colleagues do not have—a university degree. However, with her drive and frequent suggestions of new ideas, she sometimes feels some friction from her supervisors and others. While she is unhappy in her current situation, she is also afraid of losing her job. 

Although Maria’s concerns are understandable, she has many of the skills and experiences necessary for future success in the security field. She just needs to know how to use and promote her potential, her valuable life experiences, and the skills she has developed. For her to do this, a change of perspective from her own current point of view would be helpful.

As a college student, Maria learned to how to obtain, analyze, and process copious information through various channels. She also learned to express herself well in writing. She is full of intellectual energy and ideas.

Outside of the classroom, Maria learned as a young single mother to take responsibility for herself and others at an early age. In this role, she uses her organizational skills and her ability to think in variants and monitor different channels at the same time. When difficulties arise, either due to her son or other personal factors, she must be able to act flexibly and create alternatives as quickly as possible, all while upholding her responsibilities as a mother.

Maria also wants her professional work to be meaningful, and she wants to play an active role in the development of her company. To gain a role she is proud of and engaged in, Maria should convey her abilities and skills through her own stories. She has what the corporate security world of today and tomorrow needs—servant leadership qualities. She has a talent for understanding the needs of others and is an excellent communicator.

This skill set, combined with her valuable life experience, could make Maria a superb project manager within her company. So, in discussions with executives about this possibility, Maria could use her story to emphasize how her life experiences as a single parent helped her develop her skills for monitoring different developments simultaneously, for thinking on her feet, and for creating alternatives quickly—all crucial abilities for a project manager. 

In addition, Maria could be an excellent candidate to lead an initiative such as an internal think tank or advisory committee on security issues. Maria could take a proactive approach and initiate a discussion with human resources, framing her personal story to emphasize her drive, her constant creation of new ideas, and her university-honed writing and analytical skills. She could be the perfect young leader to assemble a group of the company’s best thinkers who could bring out the untapped potential of the firm. 

​From Lone Leader to Mentor 

Frank is an old hand when it comes to security services. He currently works as a security director at a university hospital. He is convinced he has achieved a lot in his career, especially when one considers his past.

His career started as a part-time doorman in a pub. He later moved to a security company, where he carried out many different jobs, such as traffic services, event services, construction site guarding, and public order services. 

Frank worked his way up from a line officer to a department head. Then, his company offered him a position as a contract security director in healthcare. For him, this was a crowning achievement.

But more and more he thought of all the sacrifices he made for his job. He has worked so many overtime hours, extra shifts, and weekends in recent years that he has hardly seen his own family, including several new grandchildren. 

After two years on the new job, it is clear that the position is different from what he had imagined. In the past, Frank was always able to make a difference in his function as department head. As an old hand, his opinion was valued and sought after. He could always communicate with others.

Now, he is no longer on the road as a department head, but as a lone fighter on loan in a new environment. The nurses, doctors, technicians, and academics who presently shape his environment harbor very different attitudes towards safety and security than Frank was used to. He feels isolated among many people who do not seem to understand any of his contributions, despite his wealth of experience. His proposals and efforts to improve security are largely met with disinterest. 

He often thinks about quitting his job, but that seems impractical. He simply doesn't know how to make himself heard at the highest management level. He sometimes wonders: is his experience worth anything these days?

The answer is that Frank can demonstrate the great value of his professional and life experiences by using his story to shift him back into a role he is better suited for and one he would prefer. 

 For example, Frank should view his career from pub security employee to department head to security director as a grand journey that featured an almost infinite number of learning experiences. These experiences could be turned into teachable moments and lessons for younger employees, highlighting how he is well-suited to be a mentor for the next generation of security leaders.

However, he needs to make a few adjustments. In his current role, he must better understand the language of the industry and healthcare professionals. He can make simple amendments to ensure his stories apply to other professional and leadership functions in the healthcare field, which will help his colleagues connect with Frank, his ideas, and security programs.

Small stories in a meeting, at a business lunch, or during a proposal to management are not only informative, but they help make an invaluable emotional connection. He could, for example, tell new managers how he tackled the challenges of going from specialist to manager, while always remaining connected with the team. His open and honest storytelling manner radiates transparency, and this helps build trust. Employees would likely appreciate how he is passing on important information that will help them thrive in the organization.

Moreover, these stories could spur personal conversations and opportunities for Frank to learn more about the well-being of his employees. He can demonstrate that he is actively and honestly interested in their concerns, aspirations, and dreams. 

Many younger security specialists and managers want a mentor at their side to help with career path challenges. This is a great opportunity for Frank to profitably share his own life experience with others. In this way, Frank can pass down hard-earned wisdom on the larger career questions that security professionals face. Offering such valuable mentorship may also increase Frank’s weight in the organization.

The Essence of Leadership

Everyone has a story to tell. Some may feel their lives, both professional and personal, seem almost too ordinary to be the basis of an interesting story. But that is not true. Those who feel that way should realize the unique value that their own experiences have.

If security managers disregard the importance of emotional connections, others will feel this lack. But if managers bring their own emotions into play and engage the emotions of others—in a positive way—they increase their chances of capturing the true attention of others.

To use their own stories, managers must have a clear vision of themselves. If leaders know what they stand for and understand their journey, they can provide true self-awareness and presence to their leadership. This authenticity is key for making emotional connections.

The other key factors in making connections are being honest and open. Through storytelling, a manager can demonstrate that he or she has experienced challenges, danger, pain, confusion, humor, and failure, as well as success. These human experiences may connect the leader with others who have been through similar situations, despite differences in background. Those shared incidents and connections can build trust. 

Stories manage to create interest, similarities, and emotional connection in the easiest way. Everyone has something to share. Tell your story and listen attentively to the stories of others, because their stories may hold something of value for you.  

Anton Doerig, CSM (Certified Security Manager from Steinbeis University Berlin), is a former security specialist and instructor for the Swiss Military Police. He has held top security management positions in several companies. doerig is an internationally recognized expert, speaker, and author on leadership, management, and security, and is an executive coach and consultant. He is a former board member of the ASIS International Chapter in Switzerland.