Who do you think you are?

A common theme my clients bring to their coaching sessions is related to their leadership brand.  It shows up in questions such as:

  • Who am I as a leader?  Who do I want to be?

  • How do I do what is needed in this role and organisation but still be authentic?

  • I’ve had feedback that people don’t know what I really stand for – how do I make myself known more?

  • How do I develop my presence and impact as a leader?

At the heart of this theme is how my clients see and define themselves.  I believe that self identity is a critical element of leadership.  Identity though is a complicated subject that is influenced by many factors.  Without understanding it properly it can get in the way of our success.

Let me bring this to life with an example. One of my clients was a hugely successful leader.  He headed up a very influential business unit in a global company.  He managed a team of over 500 people and was responsible for delivering over $2bn of revenue to his organisation. In our first coaching session he kept referring to himself as ‘shy’.  This statement really intrigued me as my experience of him in the very short amount of time we had spent together was that he was someone who was very comfortable around people, quite extravert in his personality and quietly very confident in his own skin.

When I asked him why he thought himself to be shy his answer was “My parents and family always said I was shy when I was growing up.”  This belief about his identity was impacting how comfortable he felt when working in large group situations – which as a global senior leader was an inevitable part of his role.

So when exploring identity where do we look for the answer to “who am I?”  Do we:

  • Reflect on our past – do we go to significant events to define ourselves

  • Rely on how others define us – perhaps a previous boss, a teacher or our family

  • Project ourselves into the future – define ourselves based on who we would like to be

Dr Marshall Goldsmith, who is a world leading executive advisor and coach, provides a useful model to understand how different sources of identity contribute to our self identity.

Marshall states that there are two dynamics complementing and competing with one another that determine our identity:

  1. One dynamic is the interplay between our past and future

  2. The other dynamic is the interplay between the image others have of us and our self image

This creates four combinations of sources which influence our identity: 

  1. Where our past and other people’s opinions collide lies our Reflected Identity

  2. Where our future and other people’s opinions collide lies our Programmed Identity

  3. Where our self and past collide lies our Remembered Identity

  4. Where our self and future collide lies our Created Identity

Reflected Identity is based on other people remembering events in your past and reminding you of them…..sometimes constantly.  It could be the colleague who never misses an opportunity to remind you of one of your career disasters.  It could be the boss who continues to define you by a less-than-brilliant comment you made in a meeting three years ago.  Whilst feedback is a very useful tool in a leader’s career, some feedback is not offered in good faith.   We tend to become what other people say we are. So the wrong kind of feedback offered in the wrong way can be self-limiting.

Programmed Identity is based on the result of other people sending messages about who you are or who you will become.  This has many sources; it can be influenced by the family you grew up in, the profession you enter, the culture you grew up in, the company you work for,  the entire industry you work in, or the people you spend your time with.  As Marshall states in his book MOJO “Each of these can shape your opinion of yourself, some more vividly that you may realize.”

Remembered Identity is where you know who you are based on events in your life that helped form your sense of self. These ones in your autobiography might be glorious moments or events that you’d rather forget.  The problem is the further you go back into your past the greater the risk that your Remembered Identity doesn’t match up with who you are today.

Created Identity is the where self and future meet and is the identity that we decide to create for ourselves.  It’s the part of us which isn’t controlled by our past or by other people.  Marshall states that the most truly successful people he has worked with (and he works with some of the very top leaders in the world) “have created identities to become the human beings they chose to be – without being slaves to the past or to other people.”  He cites the example of meeting Bono the lead singer of mega-band U2 and how Bono consciously forged a new identity from being a ‘rock star’ to a ‘humanitarian’.

“Many of us make the mistake of treating our identity as a fixed, immutable object.  We believe it cannot be altered, at least not significantly.  As a result, we never try to create a new identity.  One of the greatest obstacles…. (is) in the paralysis we create with self-limiting definitions of who we are.”  Dr Marshall Goldsmith

My experience as an Executive Coach is that time spent looking at self identity can pay massive dividends in terms of positive behavioural change and performance.

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