The Bregman Leadership Podcast
Episode 120

Maria Van Hekken

Leading With Yes

Is the story you tell yourself negatively impacting your performance? Maria Van Hekken, Bregman Coach and author of Leading with Yes, talks to us this week about the power of the negative—and positive—stories we tell ourselves. Discover the steps to uncover your extraordinary story and how to think deeply about your legacy.


1. Are you walking around with a story that doesn’t serve you? Dig deeper for your extraordinary story on this week’s #podcast 2. What kind of legacy would you like to leave?



This transcript has not been edited.

Peter: Welcome to the Bregman Leadership Podcast. I’m Peter Bregman, your host and CEO of Bregman Partners. This podcast is part of my mission to help you get massive traction on the things that matter most. With us today is Maria Van Hekken. It is a treat for me to have Maria on the podcast today. Maria works with me and with Bregman Partners as a coach, and so I know her very well. That allows me to say that I know that she’s as good a person as she is a writer and a coach. That’s always a pleasure for me, it’s become a criteria for me for the Bregman Leadership Podcast that the people who are on it are not only thought leaders, and have great ideas, and often great writers, but they’re also great people. That feels very, very important to me, and Maria fits that bill in spades.

Maria is a faculty member in the coaching program at the Institute for Transformational Leadership at Georgetown University. She’s past president of the Philadelphia chapter of the International Coach Federation, and as I said, she works with Bregman Partners doing coaching as part of our Big Arrow process, so I know her well. She has written a book called Leading With Y.E.S.: A Practical Guide to Discovering and Living Your Extraordinary Story.

Maria: There it is.

Peter: There it is. It’s a fun book. I wrote the introduction of it, which I really, really enjoyed doing, and we’re going to talk about it now. Maria, welcome to the Bregman Leadership Podcast.

Maria: Thank you so much. It is a pleasure to be here. It really is.

Peter: You spent a lot of time and energy writing this book. Why?

Maria: Oh, God, yes.

Peter: What is it, what are you hoping that this adds to the conversation that’s already being had around coaching and communication?

Maria: Yeah, I think the reason I wrote the book is because I want to see two things. I want to see more joy in people’s lives, and I also want to see people accomplishing their purpose, why they’re here.

Peter: How are you hoping that the book’s going to help you do that?

Maria: Through positive language and awareness, I really believe that people can create a much more extraordinary story than we’re walking around with, including myself.

Peter: Let’s start with that. Let’s start with the problem. Right?

Maria: Sure.

Peter: So what we’re saying is that people are walking around with stories that are not serving them, that are not necessarily useful in the world. Can you talk a little bit about that? Help us see where we might be off?

Maria: Yeah. I often find when I work with an executive client that they’re telling a really small story. I inadvertently started a business. I didn’t ever really want this role. I took it because no one else would do it, or some version of that. I think if you really live into an extraordinary story like my purpose is to contribute to the culture of the organization or whatever that is, or my purpose is to develop people, or my purpose is to create wonderful technology and make people’s lives easier, whatever that might be, then we are accomplishing, actually, what we’re here to do. That inspires not just us and makes our story bigger, but it’s for the sake of the people that we serve. It’s not really about me as leader. It’s about what I’m here to do and who I’m here to serve.

Peter: So let me ask you a question about that.

Maria: Yes.

Peter: I think about my own story. Right?

Maria: Yes.

Peter: I think, “How did I get into leadership?” Well, I mean it’s exactly like the story you’re saying is not so effective, which is, I was in college and sort of disillusioned with the major I had chosen. I didn’t know what to do. By accident, I went on a camping trip. I was actually planning to go on a bike trip, but the bike leader had broken her arm. I had to pretend I knew more about camping than I did. I wore cotton for six days of rain, and it was the best experience of my life. Everybody loaned me clothing. I had an opportunity to lead and be led, and it ultimately, fundamentally, changed my life. I went into more engagement around outdoor leadership, and rock climbing, and teaching, teaching first aid, and leading people. I met my wife on that, and I basically started a career in leadership.

Maria: Yes.

Peter: So I feel like that’s the truth of my story. That’s the real truth of my story and it doesn’t necessarily detract from my purpose and what I’ve seen, but I got into this very accidentally.

Maria: Yeah, and I think the circumstances we get into, whatever our role ultimately is, or roles, because I don’t know about you, but I’ve changed a few times, has to do with a lot of beautiful accidents. I think I call them unwanted miracles sometimes, if it’s a bad experience, but there are miracles and recalibration moments that completely change our lives. It’s do you know what your purpose is now and the legacy that you want to leave?

Peter: Yeah. I think the legacy question’s an interesting question because I think that I … I don’t know that I could tell you 100%, in a sentence, this is the legacy I want to leave. But the extent to which I have a sense, I want to leave a world where people are more emotionally courageous than when I got here, and that I want a world in which people are willing to take risks, and to fail, and to sort of step up in inspiring others to follow them in what’s important to them, a world in which people are willing to really take ownership and accountability for what’s important to them, and to have the hard conversations that allow other people to step into that, and with courage, with the willingness to feel the hard things they need to feel in order to do the hard things that they need to do, and in which they can sort of create more in the world than they thought they could otherwise. I mean, maybe I do have a legacy I want to leave.

Maria: Yes, I think you’re pretty clear-

Peter: I would like to leave a world that’s more like that than when I got here. I mean, I have to say that legacy is based in a legacy that other people are leaving to me because I’ve learned all of those things or/and learning those things from great teachers, but I guess I do-

Maria: So you-

Peter: … so I’m going to take it back. Maybe I can’t put it in a sentence, but I guess I do have a legacy that I want to leave.

Maria: You do, and that’s an extraordinary story. Because you emanate that, it’s inspiring, and that’s the kind of leader that is inspiring to the people that work for them or work with them and alongside them because you’re modeling what that looks like. That’s the kind of extraordinary story that I love to hear. Not everyone is so clear about their legacy, especially the younger people that I talk to. They’re like, “I haven’t had that many experiences yet. I don’t know what I’m going to do.” I say, “First of all, you’re going to have a legacy. It’s not a matter of whether you will or not, because when you leave, you will leave a legacy.” Think of the times that you’ve been in flow. Think of the times where you didn’t even notice time pass by. Those are the times when you’re at your best because you’re not really thinking.

You’re being at your … Like in an athlete. Right? When someone’s in flow, they are absolutely at their best and not necessarily trying. It’s that it comes so naturally to them, and those are the keys to finding your own purpose and your own vision of what is possible, or even maybe, like you said, “I want to leave the world in a different place where people have courageous conversations.” What do you not want to see? Right? It’s I don’t want to see people hiding from that or not being audacious enough. You always say that really matters most. You want to see people working on the things that matter the most.

Peter: Right. Right. I want them to be as big as they are. I don’t want them to make themselves smaller in order to make the people around them happy, but I want them to create an environment in which the people around them are happy that they are as big as they are, and that that gives the people around them permission to be big also.

Maria: That’s exactly what your extraordinary story is, too, because if you create your extraordinary story, then you’re modeling that and helping others to see that it’s possible. To even say the word extraordinary bothers some people, I think. But if you act that way, then people will follow your lead, and you’ll inspire them to, whatever their vision is, or their purpose, or their legacy, which will be different because we each have our own.

Peter: Well, I mean, I’m already happier from having had this conversation because I actually didn’t, I wasn’t sure I had an extraordinary story. It’s kind of nice to feel like maybe I do-

Maria: You do.

Peter: … or, at least a sense of purpose of what I’m trying to create in the world, which I sort of know in concept, but like I said at the beginning, I didn’t think I could just say it. So it’s actually, that’s been a helpful byproduct of our podcast so far, for me at least.

Maria: Good.

Peter: Tell me what, and you write about this in the book because you have a process that can help people get to the point that I guess we’re getting at now — right — which is to find or discover their extraordinary story. You have a series of steps. Do you want to just share, briefly, and then we can go into some of them in detail?

Maria: So it’s basically start with the story you have now, which you just illustrated for people. Notice the kind of language that you’re using, the thoughts that you think all the time, the negative stories that you tell, so creating an awareness of what you have.

Peter: So give some examples of that awareness.

Maria: Hmm.

Peter: Like, what are some negative stories that you hear?

Maria: One story I heard was “I can’t change anything.” I was hired, actually, to help out a female executive to groom her for another role, a higher-level role. The first time we met, she told me why she couldn’t be more strategic, have a bigger vision, have better relationships with people.

Peter: So her story was a justification of her inability to act in the world?

Maria: Yes, because you know why?

Peter: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Maria: It was everyone else’s fault.

Peter: Right. Right.

Maria: And so once we got through to the point where she … I asked her what she could influence, it was as if a light bulb turned on.

Peter: So this is a really super-important point, which is, what you’re saying to people is, if you have a story whose purpose is to validate inaction. Right?

Maria: Yes.

Peter: Whose purpose is to identify why you can’t act in the world, then that’s a story worth changing because … I can’t remember who said it. You might remember, but it’s like, if you believe … Oh, it was Henry Ford who said, “If you believe you can or believe you can’t, you’re probably right.” Okay?

Maria: Exactly.

Peter: It’s this idea that if you have the story that is supporting your stuck-ness, then that story needs to change for you to get unstuck.

Maria: Correct. Dewitt Jones says something very similar, which is, “When we believe it, we will see it.”

Peter: Right. Right. You’re not just talking about what people talk about in terms of magical thinking or just like you decide what-

Maria: No, no, no, no.

Peter: … so what’s the difference here?

Maria: The difference is if you do believe it, and you can envision something great, and it isn’t about you, it is about how you’re here to serve, then you’re not thinking about, “Oh, I can’t do that.” You’re thinking about, “How can I do that? What are my capacities?”

Peter: It’s not just thinking that creates a reality.

Maria: No.

Peter: It’s thinking that drives action that creates a reality. That might be the difference between sort of yes thinking and magical thinking. Right?

Maria: Correct.

Peter: Which is that it’s not enough to just think it, but the thinking should drive the action that drives the reality.

Maria: Absolutely, and it is not the circumstances that create happiness, or fulfillment, or joy, or any of that. When her light bulb went on, the next visit with her was her second meeting with me, she looked like a completely different person.

Peter: Huh.

Maria: She had a more stylish outfit on. She had a brand new haircut. She was, not in that instant, but she believed she could be a better leader, and she could influence things.

Peter: Because she didn’t see before then that her story was supporting her reality.

Maria: Yes. Correct.

Peter: Got it. Okay.

Maria: She created a new reality.

Peter: So the first thing, the first step is to see the story that you’re telling yourself.

Maria: Yes.

Peter: If you’re telling yourself, “I need to do all of this work because I need money, even though I hate it,” if you’re telling yourself, “I was hired to do this even though it’s a …” Whatever it is that you’re telling yourself, that is directing your action or inaction that’s creating the reality. Okay, great. So what’s the next step?

Maria: So, yeah, the next step, and these, by the way, all these tools, there’s an exercise, a tool, at the end of each chapter. They’re all available for free on Y-E-S, the number two, Y-E-S dot com. All these tools are available for free. You can download them, print them out for everyone. That was a big part of my story. I wanted as many people to have access to this as possible. Each of these various things are in there. Basically, once you know what you have, and then you look at your strengths, and your gifts, and what really drives you, and then you decide what you do want to see different when you leave this earth.

Peter: Okay.

Maria: Then you can craft your new extraordinary story.

Peter: Tell me what was that for the woman that you were just describing, who showed up with a new haircut, and a new outfit, and raring to go.

Maria: Yes. Well, she wanted to make the culture of her organization much better, and she was actually modeling the opposite of what she wanted to do.

Peter: So she wanted to make it from what to what?

Maria: She wanted to make it from negative to positive, let’s say. Encouraging and inspiring, as opposed to limiting and, “I can’t wait till Friday comes.”

Peter: Her own thinking was, I can’t wait till Friday?

Maria: Well, yes, and her own thinking was, “If I just do everything myself, that’ll be the easier way because all these other people are getting in my way.” Didn’t really work for building relationships, as you might imagine.

Peter: So her story changed.

Maria: Yes.

Peter: And her story changed to?

Maria: Her story changed to, “I’m going to inspire others to want to shift the culture too. I’m going to model it so people can see exactly how the culture could be, and I’m going to collaborate more, and I’m also going to invite more people into the process.”

Peter: What’s the difference between, “I’m going to do this as a new direction,” and “I have a new story”? Do you understand that distinction?

Maria: Because it … Yes, so it’s actually about changing the way you look at things. If you change the way you … If you change what you think is possible, then new things become possible. There’s a Jack Nicklaus quote that I love, which is about anticipatory reality, so it’s not magic. Right?

Peter: Right. Right.

Maria: But when he says when you go out on to golf, you don’t want to think, “I don’t want to hit the ball in the trees. I want to hit, I want to think I want to hit the ball down the middle of the fairway.” So she shifted her old story about how everything was so terrible, if you will, to look what’s possible and how I’m going to get there and help everyone get there together.

Peter: I wonder if there’s something else happening also, which is on the one hand, it’s, here’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to make this … I’m going to share with you a subtle distinction, but I’m curious to get your perspective.

Maria: Okay.

Peter: One is, “Okay, this is a negative culture, I’ve been playing into this culture. I want to make this a positive culture so I’m going to be … I’m going to do a number of things in order to try to shift the culture to try to make it a more positive culture.” When I think of, so that’s like a sort of directed action.

Maria: Yes.

Peter: And when I think of a story, I think maybe complete the sentence, “I am the kind of person who,” so rather than it be about action, it’s also about identification, like who I identify as.

Maria: Yes.

Peter: “I’m no longer going to identify as the kind of person that uses excuses to show my shortcomings, to excuse my shortcomings, but I’m going to be the kind of person … I’m the kind of person who shows up with that kind of positivity.” Or, “I’m the kind of person who is constantly looking for where there is some glimpse of success that I can leverage and grow,” that it’s not just about what I’m going to do, but it’s about the story of who I am that changes how I then act.

Maria: Absolutely true. Absolutely true. Her story for her life is probably a bit different than her story as that leader in that she wanted to be a better person — right — and a better leader, and a better mother, and a better wife, and a better co-worker for some intrinsic reasons, which I think is what you’re describing. So there’s maybe there’s a meta-story and then there’s an individual story. We’re always telling stories, all the time. Always.

Peter: It’s probably also useful to, even outside the scope of leadership, or leading with yes, because this is critical for leadership, obviously. Right?

Maria: Yes.

Peter: Which is to say how you’re showing up as a leader is going to impact sometimes one, sometimes 10,000 people.

Maria: Yes.

Peter: It seems like it’s also about looking at, maybe even listening, or reflecting. I think of a food journal where you’ve looked at everything that you’ve eaten over the past day — right — so that you can really take stock on saying, “Am I eating the way I want to?” I can imagine, and I don’t remember you suggesting this in the book, but maybe this is sort of a fun thing for people to do, which is to create a story journal which says, “Let me look back at my day and what are the stories, literally, the stories that I told? What are the stories that seem to be driving my actions over a day?” And then I could say, “You know, I told like 12 jokes, and four stories, and et cetera, and three of them were at the expense of someone else. Two of them was to justify that I couldn’t act and here’s why. Maybe I literally start changing the stories that I tell, and the jokes that I tell, or how I show up, and that changes the way I end up impacting the world.”

Maria: You know, what’s really beautiful about that is a lot of times people tell the same stories over and over again, so I ask them to do just that. Pay attention to that. How many times have you complained about X person before? Or X circumstance, whatever that might be, and we tell the same sad-sack stories over and over again. It’s so unproductive, and it’s gathering data to validate our poor victim story. It’s disabling.

Peter: It’s actually a really beautiful observation which is to really say, “I’m actually going out in the world in a certain way.” I’m sort of picturing this thing that’s impossible, but you know like we have these little cameras that can pick up, randomly, here are different things you’ve said at different moments or … I’m sorry, here’s different, like every 10 minutes I’m going to take a picture, and that’s going to show you what your day was like. I imagine something like that which can actually say, “So I spoke 500 times today.” Right? Imagine if you can really go back and go, “I spoke 500 times. What was the impact of the things that I said? What was I saying, and what was that leading to?” It would be such an interesting diagnosis — right — or analysis to say, “You know, I spoke 500 times, and 100 of them were additive, and 400 were detractive.” Or to say, “400 of them were additive, and I was supportive of people, and I … These are the ways in which I spoke in the world.” Again, it’s a little outside the scope of story, but it’s very much about how we’re showing up, and our story supports that.

Maria: Yes. I think it actually ties in perfectly with story because a lot of the things that are going on, maybe there’s another app we can come up, that’ll record the thoughts we’re thinking.

Peter: Right, and the thoughts precede the speaking. Right?

Maria: Right.

Peter: You don’t speak, even people who speak without thinking, are thinking. They just don’t see their thinking-

Maria: Correct.

Peter: … and they’re speaking.

Maria: Your point about people having those conversations, like how many times is our thought balloon going, “God damn.” Excuse me. “Why are they doing that?” As opposed to “You know, I’d like to talk to you about that.” If we could record the thinking that’s creating us or limiting us, that really influences our story because another portion in the book talks about mindfulness. A lot of people will say to me, “Well, I don’t need that,” or “I can’t meditate,” or “I do whatever,” and essentially, if you do pay attention to your thoughts, a lot of us are having a negative meditation.

Peter: Yeah, it’s really interesting. I think tracking, and if you actually connect those two things, which is look at something you just said, and ask yourself, “What was the thought that just preceded that statement?” Right? “What was the thought that I had that led me to say, and really being honest with each other, like I was feeling vulnerable so I put someone else down in order to feel better. What was going on, or what was the emotion that I had right before I said that thing?”

Maria: Right. Right

Peter: Which could direct us. Maria, it is such a pleasure to talk to you. It’s a wonderful book. The book is Leading With Y.E.S.: A Practical Guide to Discovering and Living Your Extraordinary Story. Maria Van Hekken is the author and wonderful person. Thank you so much, Maria, for joining us on the Bregman Leadership Podcast.

Maria: Thank you. Take care.

Peter: I hope you enjoyed this episode of the Bregman Leadership Podcast. If you did, it would really help us if you subscribe on iTunes and leave a review. A common problem that I see in companies is a lot of business, a lot of hard work that fails to move the organization, as a whole, forward. That’s the problem that we solve with our Big Arrow process. For more information about that or to access all of my articles, videos, and podcasts, visit Thank you, Clare Marshall, for producing this episode, and thank you for listening.

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