Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The Importance of Identity in Determining How/Whether you will Lead


'If we did all the things we are capable of doing, we would literally astound ourselves'
Thomas Edison

So, then... why don't we? What holds us back?

In examining leadership and what separates great leaders from others, the biggest distinction I have come across is about identity - who we think we are and what we believe ourselves to be capable of. This is so critical because of the consistency principle - we will almost never act in discord with our identity, because that would make us fickle and inconsistent.

Most of your ‘capability’ or ‘talent’ is constant, but your belief about who you are and what you’re capable of will dictate how much and which pieces of yourself you will access in the workplace– and therefore what you will achieve. Whether or not you will propel yourself to the next level, and the next, is a function of who you believe yourself to be. In most cases, this identity was formed randomly from childhood, based on the perceptions of parents, teachers, friends, society.

If you’ve ever heard yourself say –‘oh, I’m just not that kind of person’ or ‘that’s not how I work’, or ‘I wouldn’t be comfortable doing that’, then you’ve come up against the barriers of your identity. In a professional sense, this is likely a limited identity that stands between where you are, and where you need to be.

For example, a certain woman executive that I interviewed who is now the Chief Marketing Officer of a publicly listed company that she was part of the founding team of, got some advice early on in her career when she was a very competent analyst. At this point in her career she valued herself as intelligent, hardworking and an important contributor to the team.

One day there came an opportunity for her to participate in an actual client pitch. It was a huge opportunity for her to participate at a very high level in her company – but this woman, although extroverted, outspoken and confident, initially shied away from this explaining that ‘she wasn’t comfortable in sales’. In her mind, selling just wasn’t her thing – she was a ‘behind the scenes’ person, an analyst who supported sales.

Her then colleague (who is now her husband!) flatly told her that she’d never get anywhere until she was able to get people to actually sign checks. She could be the best analyst in the world but she would never really become a leader if she wasn’t willing to become involved in the sales process. It was a powerful statement, and one that she took on board to shift her perception of who she was and what she was capable of, so that she would be able to achieve her professional goals. She attended the pitch, was pivotal in winning the client over, and her identity was forever shifted.

Who you believe you are dictates how you behave and think, which will determine your results. Maintaining the integrity of who you are – even when stagnant, destructive or disempowering – will almost always trump acting inconsistently with your identity, which is why consciously assessing and constructing our identity becomes so important if any new behavior, change or goal is to become lasting.

What are the barriers of your current identity, and do they help or hinder you? What are the things that professionally you ‘are not cut out for’, or that ‘are not what you signed up for’ because the thought of doing them makes you very uncomfortable? This is most likely where you need to start asking questions of yourself in order to get to the next level.

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