“Ya gots to remember who you are,” says Miss Essie, a character in my one-act play. “so you don’t get confused when some fool tries to tell you who you are.” I love Miss Essie. She is everything I want to be when I grow up. She has seen it all, smiled and offered her blessings. She is undisturbed by chaos, trouble and contention, because she remembers who she is. Miss Essie has never worked in a large corporation but she understands the importance of identity.
The more senior your role in an organization, the more important clarity about your identity becomes. If you don’t know who you are, the day to day complexity and ambiguity of today’s workplace becomes torturous. How can you make difficult decisions without clear values? How can you be confident when you are not grounded in a clear sense of power and purpose? How can people follow you if they can’t see who you are? How can people trust you if they don’t see congruence between your values and your actions?
Leaders who have not done the work to know themselves are pretty easy to spot. They are the ones who can’t tolerate differing points of view, don’t listen and are convinced that they know better. They often have difficulty making and they find it impossible to admit a mistake because that would mean they were wrong.
The world is no less complex for leaders who are grounded in a strong identity but self knowledge and self awareness gives them an advantage. These leaders don’t feel threatened by people who know more than they do. They can listen to differing viewpoints and are willing to change their positions if the argument is compelling. They are able to relate to others authentically and there is congruence between their values, words and deeds. They have a clear set of values to guide decision making.
Here are some ideas to help you clarify your identity. If you have never done this before, enjoy the adventure. If you have, it may be time to do it again. Things change.
Get clear on your own story.
Where do you come from? What did you learn from your family and community? What key events shaped you? Which moments have revealed something new about yourself? These stories will come in handy when you are trying to connect with others?
Get clear on your strengths and vulnerabilities.
What do you do well? What contributions have you made? What are you doing when you are at your best? In what areas are you not so confident, not so skilled, not so eager to jump into the fray? When you know these things, you will be better equipped to leverage your strengths and reduce your weaknesses or create strategies to mitigate their effects.
Get clear on your values.
What is important to you? What is worth fighting for? Is it fairness, social responsibility, creativity and innovation, sustainability, something else? Know your values. They are your compass. Without them, you are lost.
Get clear on your purpose.
In his book Letters to Garrett Robert Quinn introduces the statement of life purpose. Quinn asks the reader to take the time to answer the big questions. Why am I here? What contribution to I want to make before I die? How will I use my strengths and gifts to create value? How will the world be better or different because I was here? Getting clear on purpose starts with knowing your strengths and values.
Don’t just do something, sit there.
Some people are so busy that they never have time to reflect, or maybe they are so busy so that they don’t have to reflect. Take time to own your successes, learn from your failures, to focus not on where you fell, but where you slipped. Your life is a teacher, but you must sit quietly if you wish to learn.
Suzanne Wilkins is a coach and consultant who has been developing leaders for over 25 years. She is also a playwright and actress who uses theater to help others grow and learn.