The Awareness Paradigm: A How-to Manual Disguised as a Novel
Nancy Hardaway wanted to write a book about the leadership lessons she has learned over the years and now teaches as a consultant, but the traditional format didn’t seem to fit.
She decided instead to tell a story and show how good leadership can evolve out of conflict and disagreement. In this engaging tale, the mayor of a small town has to get four opinionated leaders to agree on a redevelopment plan in order to get funding. Each of the characters learns their own lessons along the way.
Nancy recently gave an insider’s view to the writing process:
What motivated you to write this book?
We are taught how to read and write in elementary school. We might be taught how to speak and how to present in high school (debate class, anyone?). We learn the skills of our “trade” in colleges or on the job. We perform well and get promoted and suddenly have to manage others. Who teaches us that? In my own experience as a leader, and that of many of my clients, we are not taught the skills of influence, of leading others. How to listen carefully, how to help others change, how to see both detail and big picture, for example. I wanted to write a book to share the lessons of leadership I’ve learned in training and from experience, that I use to coach and train both senior executives and new leaders. I wanted to write a book that was accessible, resonant over time, fun and quick to read, and devoid of jargon. I wanted to have fun writing it. So I turned from my list of concepts to the idea of fiction and ended up with this story of four leaders, that I hope helps people avoid the pitfalls of trial and error.
How long did it take?
I started to put ideas on paper about two years ago – the concepts I wanted to communicate. I interviewed a number of leaders to get their thoughts. The “shitty first draft” that Anne Lamott calls it in her great book Bird by Bird took me about 6 months. Then there were many, many, many rounds of editing – straightening out story lines and dramatic arcs. I had sticky notes all over my office, even on the floor. Different colors for different characters. It looked like the scene in the movie ‘A Beautiful Mind’ when they discover the ongoing insanity of the main character. I went from 16 chapters to over 40 as I broke it up into individual digestible concepts. The final work was writing the theory appendices. That was the least fun. I left it ‘til last. But I’m proud of it now. It gives the book the credibility and gravitas it needed.
How did it evolve?
When I started to write it as a typical “how-to” book it felt dry and boring, and too full of abstraction. As I thought about the experiential method I use in teaching, I was reminded that leadership and learning happens in the moment, between people. I needed to “show” not “tell” about leadership. So came the transition to fiction. (I had written a couple unpublished mysteries years earlier.) In order to explore different work styles and different work environments, I decided on four leaders coming together to solve a problem. I cut out lots of faces from magazines until I found the characters I wanted. Then I had to work out what kind of leaders, businesses, what kind of problem, etc. I actually drafted folks from a workshop I was teaching to role play the characters for about 20 minutes – to give them life for me. Then the characters kind of took off on their own. In the middle I decided I wanted a “bad guy” so I had to go back and prepare the ground for him to arrive on the scene.
What was the hardest part about writing it?
The first hard part was at the beginning. I had this list of lessons. I had a sequence in mind about how they would be best presented. And I had these five characters interacting (which became six). I was overwhelmed and making lots of false starts. Finally, in talking with a friend and colleague who was holding me accountable for progress, I realized that we all learn lessons when we need them, and not before. So I let the characters and the plot take charge and then brought the concepts in when they needed them. The second hard part was at the end. I had a lot of positive feedback about the book as a whole from colleagues reading drafts but a lot of negative feedback about the beginning. AHHH. Looking back, I think it still reflected all the false starts. Getting a professional editor’s view of the first thirty pages was critical in cutting and pasting – taking out stuff I didn’t need, and filling gaps that I hadn’t even noticed were there because I was too close to it.
What advice do you have for other writers?
1. Get support! I tend to take on tasks with much energy at the beginning, and peter out or lose focus along the way. Because I knew this about myself I asked my friend and colleague, Joe Melnick, if he would support my journey. We had scheduled calls about every 6 -8 weeks or sooner if necessary. He read the drafts but not for editing – more so I could talk about them out loud. He kept me focused on each next step. I can’t repay his generosity, but I hope to pass it along. Also, hire the professional support you need.
2. Focus only on the next step! I used a metaphor – you can drive all the way across the country in the dark, just seeing ahead as far as your headlights light up the road. It was too daunting to think of the whole. I would make myself do just that next chapter. Or just that little bit of editing. It was only near the end that I made myself a six month goal chart with one activity a month, working backwards from completion. I’m proud to say, I was only off by a month. You can learn more about Nancy Hardaway and the Awareness Paradigm on her website, Listening 2 Leaders.
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