Who do you say you are?
The way you see yourself, your leadership identity, is the reference point you use in relating to others, making decisions and taking actions.
It’s important to knowing how to operate and in feeling confident as you go about it.
This means that when your identity is threatened, you’ll do just about anything to protect it.
But, sometimes, this self-protection can actually hurt you and your potential.
Maybe it’s time you rethink who you are.
We formulate our identity through life experiences, making sense of how we perceive ourselves and how others perceive us.
Let’s say I report to you. I will form my identity around questions such as, “Am I doing well?
What does my boss feel I’m doing well? Does my boss recognize my gifts and strengths? Does my boss think me worthy of promotion?”
These are just some of the questions around which I will form my identity, along with other feedback I receive from you, others, and the work I perform.
Conversely, if I’m your boss, I’ll be asking myself questions like, “Does my report see me as influential? Effective? Worthy of respect?” And other pertinent questions relating to the way I see myself – and want to see myself.
We will watch for feedback that tells us we are right about ourselves – our gifts, abilities, our potential – and our limitations. And we will then operate accordingly.
Of course, identity starts much younger than this, and we all bring this history with us to the present. What this means is that your identity has already been shaped and you will subconsciously seek to reinforce it by the way you approach life.
Sadly, the feedback we receive is anecdotal and can be faulty and limiting. It comes from many situations and sources over time, coupled with our own synthesizing of the information. It takes into account what is perceived to be true at the moment, which is at best, partial and imperfect. And it does not take into account what is possible – our potential.
The struggle becomes apparent when we begin to ponder our potential. What’s possible for me? Using our leadership identity as a reference point becomes limiting. By checking against this perceived identity to see if something is possible, we limit ourselves to who we could be because we are referencing who we think we are.
This situation was nowhere more apparent than with a client of mine a few years ago. Danielle had been promoted from senior manager of a department to vice president in charge of multiple areas of responsibility.
Danielle had done extremely well as senior manager. Always the one to meet deadlines and keep things running, she prided herself on getting things done. When someone in the department had a personal issue, Danielle was the one to jump in and help complete the work. She enjoyed hands-on opportunities – this was gratifying and gave her the sense that she was doing something important.
All this came to a halt the day Danielle was promoted to vice president. The company felt she managed the department well and could now take on multiple areas of responsibility. Of course, Danielle was elated. She felt a sense of pride in the confidence the enterprise gave her, and the promotion reinforced her sense of self-worth.
However, Danielle was now faced with managing a different way. No longer could she jump in to complete someone else’s work. It was not possible to take on projects “hands on” as she had done in the past. The responsibilities were too vast, and this called for her to step up in leading others to get the work done. It required more influence than brawn, and a way of holding areas and managers accountable for actually doing the work.
And Danielle found herself in trouble.
Her own leader, John, allowed Danielle some time to “get her feet wet,” but began to notice a troublesome trend. Danielle began to work long hours and weekends when others were gone. She developed the poor habit of being late to meetings. She showed signs of great stress, and John decided she needed help. He called me.
When I met Danielle, she was frazzled, and frustrated that she had to take time to meet.
“I really don’t have time for this, although John thinks executive coaching will help. Is it possible to push this back a few months? I’m concerned that I won’t be able to get things done on time – and that’s a huge problem for the way my boss sees me.”
I realized she felt cornered and pushed to her limit.
“Danielle, if I could help make your job easier and help your boss and others to see you as competent, effective, and up to this new appointment, would you be willing to give me some time?”
“Well, if you put it that way…” she responded. “I’m just plain worn out.”
“I can see that,” I answered. “And I’m so sorry you are feeling worn out and overwhelmed. Let’s see if we can fix this.”
After some careful conversation together, it became apparent to me that Danielle was holding herself back from stepping fully into the new role – because of who she thought she was – her leadership identity.
Basically, Danielle had always received accolades and affirmation that she did a great job whenever she completed a task or project. From early on, grades and promotions came from successfully completing work, which told Danielle that she was seen as competent and effective as she met deadlines well with her hands-on results. In short, Danielle saw herself as an effective “do-er.” Do something, get rewarded. Complete a job and be seen as competent. That was Danielle.
This ability to get things done and do them well made Danielle an excellent individual contributor with some basic managerial skills. Individual contributors are called on to effectively manage their time and activities, competing demands, and multiple deadlines – all within a confined area of responsibility. They can make great team players and can take on a senior “helping role” when skilled at this.
But moving from individual contributor to leader is a leap. Leading means influencing others and holding them accountable to complete the assigned work.
It was not that Danielle did not have the gifts and talents to lead – it was simply that the move required embracing this different role as valuable. And this was unsettling for Danielle.
Who was Danielle if she was not a do-er?
Was she a person of value?
Becoming the vice president meant getting the work done without putting a hand to it. It meant utilizing more influence with her reports and holding them accountable to get the work done. It meant dealing with relationships and complexities at a heightened level and making difficult decisions palatable. Bringing people along. Motivating them to perform at their best.
Danielle had what it took in the way of raw talent to do this – but the way she saw herself – her leadership identity – kept her from doing so.
She argued with herself. If she wasn’t “hands on” with projects, she did not see herself as equally as valuable. Who was she if she wasn’t actually completing assigned work as she had done in her previous job? How would they know she was competent and effective? Others might see her as superfluous, as not needed. Where was the value in her role?
In response to this internal argument, Danielle had held on to some work that should have been delegated. She inserted herself in meetings where her managers could have represented. She was reticent to mentor a couple of staff into greater responsibilities because they might shine too brightly.
And all this because of her leadership identity. Seeing herself as not valuable unless she was “doing” – unless she was contributing individually on projects – was keeping her stuck and hurting her reputation.
Once we worked through this, recognizing the value in her new role and leadership, and reshaping the way she showed up with her responsibilities, we were well on our way.
From there, we identified her growth opportunities including ways to sharpen her influence, how to mentor more effectively, and how to hold people accountable with confidence. I helped her to see how this impacted the organization so that she reinforced her own sense of self-worth.
We then worked on her vision for her areas of responsibility, the traits her senior team needed to adopt, and how this translated into the way they worked. Ultimately, she formed and honed her own team’s “identity” so that they became high-performing, engaged, and loved working for her.
How might your own current leadership identity be holding you back from your potential? What are the stories you tell yourself about what you can – and cannot do?
I challenge you to move beyond this. Begin by creating a vision for yourself and what you would like to ultimately accomplish.
What story about yourself will need reshaping?
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Patti Cotton helps executives optimize their effectiveness in leading self, others, and the enterprise. Her areas of focus include confidence, leadership style, executive presence, effective communication, succession planning, and masterful execution. With over 25 years of leadership experience, both stateside and abroad, Patti works with individuals, teams, and organizations across industries, providing executive consulting, leadership development, succession planning, change management, and conflict resolution. She is also an experienced Fortune 500 speaker. For more information on how Patti Cotton can help you and your organization, click here.