Who are you, as a leader?
The first way most of us typically answer the question “who are you?” is with information, from our own perspective. If you and I met at a professional event somewhere and fell into conversation, that’s probably where you would start, too. You’d tell me your name, where you work, your position, how long you’d been there and where you worked before. Maybe I’d hear about the challenges or satisfactions of your job, or something about what you do with your time outside of work.
With this information, I’d have a beginning of an answer to the question, who is this person?
But there’s another layer to how we know each other, isn’t there? It has to do with what I’ll call identity. How do I perceive myself? What kind of person do I take myself to be? And, perhaps more important, at least in terms of how I’m able to influence you and my environment, what kind of person do you take me to be? What is the identity that I’m creating for myself in your eyes?
I’m willing to bet that, even though you and I have perhaps never met in person, you have formed an impression of me. Maybe it’s based on the topics I choose for these articles, or maybe it has more to do the words I use to express my thoughts. And if we have met in person, your impression would be even stronger. Because we do that as human beings, right? At the same time that we share information with each other, we experience words, expressions, the pitch and cadence of the voice, the feel of the handshake…and we form impressions.
Now, some of what your impressions are based on may be out of my control. Maybe I look like your sister, and you’ve never gotten along with your sister. Or maybe my gender or race or age or nationality or whether or not I have an accent plays a role. I want to acknowledge that these factors exist, and the fact that others form impressions of us based on these factors is very real.
At the same time, much of your impression of me is based directly on things that are very much in my control. If we meet in person, do I meet your eyes? Is my posture tall or slumped? Is my tone interested and engaged, or somewhat bored? Do I remember your name? In other words, with every action I take and every word I say, I’ve begun to construct an identity for myself in your eyes. And that identity will influence how you listen to me, how open you’re willing to be to what I have to say.
And if we were to work together over time, that identity would influence even more. Let’s assume for a minute that you report to me. The identity I construct in your eyes might effect how hard you’re willing to work for me, or whether you are willing to tell me the truth about things, or the extent to which you trust me in general.
Or say I report to you. What’s my identity? Do you see me as someone worthy of promotion? Do you rely on me to tell you the truth? If you have a special project that needs doing right, do you give it to me…or not? Everything I say and do will shape how you answer these questions for yourself as my manager. That’s identity.
As a leader, it’s crucial that you are aware of the identity you have with others. Without that awareness, you’re like the bull in the china shop. You create impact you don’t intend. Your ability to influence others diminishes. And in the long run, your career is likely to stall if your current identity is not in line with what your organization is looking for in more senior leaders. Because if you’re not aware of it, how can you change it?
So, what do you know about the leadership identity you’ve built for yourself? If I were to ask the people around you at work – your peers, your direct reports, your superiors – what you are like to work with, do you know what they’d say? And, if you’re interested in advancing in your career, is your current identity aligned with your goals?
Not long ago I was working with a coaching client who wanted to advance to the next level of leadership in his organization. In his own eyes, he played the role of the class clown in his office – constantly making jokes, many of them self-deprecating, or using humor to lighten tense moments. He believed that this identify would hold him back, that people didn’t see him as serious enough to advance.
In our work together, he focused on getting feedback from other people. He discovered that yes, others saw him as humorous and often joking, but they didn’t think that was getting in his way at all. This was good information for him to have – it helped raise his awareness, and close the gap between his perception and others’ perception.
Still, he wanted to expand his identity, and he worked hard to stop making self-deprecating jokes, and to be more serious in meetings. And toward the end of our work together, he said, “you know, I see a trend in how people are responding to me. I’m getting more questions on how to handle certain situations, or how to manage challenging personnel. People are seeking out my advice and guidance.”
In other words, he successfully expanded his identity. Even though others didn’t see his joking as a problem, it’s telling to me that they only started coming to him for advice when he consciously worked to show up as more serious. The identity he had wasn’t a problem for others, but it did influence how they interacted with him. It wasn’t sufficient for where he wanted to go and the role he wanted to play in his organization.
As this story illustrates, identity is fluid, and can be changed. It may not be easy, but it’s possible. To change your identity takes awareness, willingness, and time: awareness of what your identity currently is and how you built it; willingness on your part to start acting in new ways; and enough time to embody those new habits and have others see that this is a true shift.
Let me be very clear: I’m not suggesting that the game is about creating the perfect identity. Nor is it about changing your identity in order to please others, or manipulating others so that they perceive you in the way you want them to. In fact, it’s not a game. Observing yourself through the lens of identity leads to a life-long practice of acting with greater and greater integrity, so that the person you intend to be is the person others actually experience.
What about you? What do you already know about the identity you have as a leader? Where are the gaps between your own perceptions and those of others? If you want more information about your identity, how will you get it? I’d love to hear your comments!