Leader Identity: Being a Leader Without Being In Charge

These are challenging times for leaders and it begins with the simple question, “Who am I?”

In the old days, when organizations seemed simpler and less complex, we had a well-defined archetype of a good leader. Conceptualized in the “Great Man” theory of leadership and articulated through traits-based leadership development models, the ideal leader was logical and rational, capable of developing well thought out plans and then executing on those plans by motivating others to “buy in.”

As the leader went, so went the organization. They were firm and decisive and quite capable of some vagueness in their ethical stance, provided they achieved the desired outcome.

Demographically, they were largely white, male, 45 – 55, extroverts and tall: the better looking the more successful they were, or so the evidence would suggest.

All of this is well documented in Joseph Rost’s excellent book, “Leadership for the Twenty-First Century.” Needless to say, this left a great many people feeling that they could never be leaders.

In my graduate school classes, where a leadership course is part of the required curriculum, I find a lot of students come into the class burdened either historically or culturally by some version of the Great Man Theory.

The may feel that demographically they are automatically disqualified. They may rely on intuition and a creative spark to get things done; to serve rather than command; be introverts and feel more effective when others take ownership for achieving outcomes.

A key philosophy of the course is to help them shift their question from, “How on earth do I measure up?” to these impossible archetypes and, instead, start to ask themselves a very different question: “How can I lead effectively from where I am and who I am?”

The results can be truly transformative and it is the greatest joy of my career when people come up to me months and even years after the course and tell me that it was pivotal moment for them. Now that they have a sense of peace about who they are, they can lead, often subtly and quietly, but from a place of confidence.

I worked for a CEO who spoke often about striving for “ruthless” self-awareness. By this he meant a rigorous commitment to self-examination and course correction: not in pursuit of an archetype but in an effort to be the best “you” you could be.

In the work that my colleagues and I do, we focus in on five approaches, each one of which could – and likely will – become its own blog. Let me summarize them:

Clarity of Values 

Peter Northouse, author of “Leadership: Theory and Practice” suggests that “at a minimum, it is crucial to state that leadership involves values and one cannot be a leader without being aware of and concerned about one’s own values.” This is a process that requires careful thought and a willingness to dig below the surface of “socially acceptable” language to the true self. Whether we know it or not, our values are the compass that help us chart our course, especially in stormy seas. Some would like to think that their decisions are always based on logic and facts, but below the surface values are often guiding the way.

Awareness of Blind Spots

We hold what Peter Senge and Chris Argyris would call “mental models.” These are assumptions and stories that we tell ourselves about how the world works. Often tacit, they can be enormously helpful but they can also create powerful blind spots when they are inaccurate. Self-examination means identifying them and then examining them in terms of their efficacy and validity. I find this can begin by making a brief inventory of who you are in demographic and historic terms, and then examining the implications of those “facts” for how you see the world and make decisions. For example, I am an educated, white, male. I am aware that in the past this has burdened me with a hegemonic world view of privilege. Unchallenged, this can be incredibly damaging to self and relationships.

Awareness of Personality

Whether you use a psychometric instrument like the Myers Briggs Type Inventory (my preference) or some other tool, understanding your personality can be incredibly powerful. Unexamined, personality traits can create powerful blind spots and interfere with relationships. When we understand the implication of personality preferences, we can make new ways to communicate and connect and can find new ways to relate to people with different preferences.  A clear awareness of preferences can also be very helpful in determining work type preferences.

Awareness of Strengths and Weaknesses

In the past, we put enormous effort into identifying and then eliminating our weaknesses. This was at best a weak solution and at worst, incredibly dispiriting. The school of positive organizational studies and the research of Marcus Buckingham and others would suggest that we’re far better off to focus on developing our strengths and collaborating with others who have offsetting strengths. This provides for a highly effective work team. There are various ways of identifying strengths, keeping in mind that we do need to find ways of mitigating our weaknesses so that they are not disabling. As a chronically disorganized person, I rely heavily on my system of time priority management to make sure I don’t stray too far off course. Without it, I’d be sailing off on some lonely seas!

Awareness of Emotional Intelligence

Great work has been done by Daniel Goleman and others to help us understand the impact of emotional intelligence on a leader’s effectiveness. It means recognizing and mitigating our own emotions while also learning to have the most positive affect we can on others’ emotions. Emotional intelligence can and must be developed in order for a leader to lead.

Each of these approaches to self-reflection help leaders develop an honest and clear sense of who they are as a leader so that they can share that information in a powerful moment of integrity and vulnerability, thereby encouraging others to do the same.

Take the workshop on Leadership Identity on Thursday, September 17th, 2015.

Our half-day workshops help people discover their strengths and lead from their best self, regardless of their current role. In Leadership Identity, we clarify personal values, self-awareness and how we can integrate what we learn about ourselves into our work, our relationships with others, home life and leadership style.

Click here to join us for our upcoming Leadership Identity workshop.


Peter_bio2Peter Dickens

Peter Dickens is passionate about leadership and change. He helps people and organizations that serve others to revitalize their leadership and ministry at tyndale.ca/leadership. Follow Peter on Twitter (@Dr_PeterDickens).



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