Identity as a Leadership Trap

As per Herminia Ibarra in her book Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader, to become the leader we'd like to be, we should act first and think second. This is because acting offers "outsight" (insight from the outside) that thinking won't provide. 

Outsight has three parts:

  1. Redefine your job
  2. Redefine your network
  3. Redefine yourself

I've touched on the first two in my previous posts about this book (here and here) and would like to discuss the third here.

We all have a strong sense of self and along with that, actions that make us feel "authentic" and actions that make us feel like a phony. As per Herminia, there are two types of people:

  1. "chameleons" who are comfortable with being different things at different times, as the situation calls for;
  2. and "true-selfers" who stick to the one version they believe is who they truly are.

Chameleons are more likely to be promoted while true-selfers, even when given the opportunity to step-up, tend to get in their own way. 

Herminia encourages us to consider working on our identity as play, rather than work, so that we are okay with trying on different roles, borrowing aspects from those we idolize, and even reframing our stories. 

All the above really speaks to me. At an earlier point in my life (yes, in my angsty teenage years), I spent a lot of time trying to define myself and figuring out the three words that best described me. I would occasionally adjust those three words, but I used them as my personal lodestone. And although I have not done this for years, I now realize that there were other mindsets that got in my way.

To me, "politics" was a four-letter word and a game I refused to play. As Herminia and others have since taught me, there are good and bad politics. The good kind is just the way the game is played and a necessary part of business. I also refused to see the good in starting your own business and being anything but a corporate climber. I have obviously rethought both those concepts and embraced a different and evolving aspect of my personality.

What all this has taught me, as Herminia and her quoted experts confirm, is that our stories and identities change. We have to be open to this and to exploring different aspects of ourselves, and experimenting with those that make us feel uncomfortable, to truly step-up to leadership roles. It won't be easy but by reframing it as play rather than work, it will be more tolerable to the true-selfers among us.

So view identity not as who you were or are, but also as who you want to become. 

From this perspective, can you identify a thought or practice that has been holding you back? How can you break through this trap and "play"?


Karina is VP of Operations and HR at 24/7 Teach.

This was originally posted on Business Common Sense blog.

Disclosure: IndieBound affiliate link included.