How Identity Impacts Leadership Success

If you were to earn more money would it change you, or just make you a richer version of yourself? As one rich man once said, we’d all like the chance to find out! Character determines our destiny and is shaped by values we don’t just choose, but live. It ‘leaks’ out of us very naturally in our everyday choices and interactions. That’s why a leader’s identity is a reflection to others of their inner world, often more than is realised. Most of our leadership iceberg is below the water, but it props up what is seen. So how does personal identity actually affect the success of our leadership?

1. Identity determines how leaders ‘show up.’

If who you are is based on internalised values, then these necessarily fashion the image you present to others. Of course, skills development backed by hard work will provide a measure of credibility, too, but character shapes who you are and what others see, not just what you do.

Effective leaders routinely communicate a clear and convincing call to action. The inspiration for change naturally does not come from words and deeds alone. That’s why the outward identity a leader presents cannot merely be a crafted preference. It flows from within.

Body language, persona and charisma will, of course, become part of a leadership X-factor through daily routines. This is often the gift-wrapping that enhances the leader’s message.The confidence that people have in that leader may be quickly won, but also lost, by such external attributes. For example, negativity, pessimism, emotionalism, or inaction, are just some of the factors that can seriously undermine leaders who otherwise show great personal integrity. In such cases, the message is compromised.

It is in connecting internal values and external demeanour that maximum impact is felt. This often needs mentors or coaches to speak to blind spots so that the whole self is integrated and the best version of ourselves is presented.

Attitude needs to match aptitude so that fruitfulness matches faithfulness.

2. Identity is purposefully connected to our interactions

How we lead, serve, train, or connect will undoubtedly flow from the inner self. An ability to cultivate the personable and productive environment that inspires people can result from learned behaviours, but a leader’s true impact will flow from who they truly are within.

Jim Collins, in his highly successful book, Good to Great, shows from extensive company research that outstanding leadership success comes from a “paradoxical blend of personal humility and professional will.”

The tenacity to succeed needs to be matched with servant leadership that honours and values people while maintaining unshakeable commitment to applied principles. The ability to make just one person feel important within the wider context of leading the masses reminds us that impacting people is also about impacting persons.

Although Jesus provides the ultimate example of the power and reach of this concept, recent books such as To Pixar and Beyond and Creativity Inc. also reveal how such success has combined relational priority and a commitment to excellence to generate the stellar growth of the Pixar animation studios.

If the human impact of leadership is not innately important to a leader, their impact will be reactionary. Leadership needs to flow from conviction within one’s true and consistent self that is not agitating because of unfulfilled ambition, shame, insecurity, or a lack of affirmation.

Unhealthy leaders typically turn their ships off course, often rapidly: half the people get thrown overboard and the other half become seasick.

3. Identity is ultimately filtered by internal values, not external circumstances.

We are all the product of our upbringing and our leadership impact is also shaped by our positive and negative experiences and how we respond to them. If these become a filter that interprets the values we wish to live by, we can run the risk of accommodating to the world around us.

If character is shaped according to objective truth, such as Biblical values, then these become the preferable filter that will condition leadership success.

The identity we ideally showcase is then a function of a life that has been changed from the inside out. For me, as a Christian, life’s true value originates from treasuring Christ and the heart then betrays a desire to live out His principles. Where our treasure is, our heart follows (Luke 12:34) and it is then out of the abundance of that heart that our mouth speaks (Matthew 12:34).

A butterfly emerges from its chrysalis for a life of flight that leaves behinds its life of crawling. It is fundamentally changed. Romans 12:2 says not to be conformed (literally ‘patterned’) to the world but transformed (literally ‘metamorphosised’ like a butterfly) by the renewing of our minds. This allows us to live supernaturally, naturally.

Our values flow from who we are. As a Christian, I believe that I am changed by the work of the Holy Spirit in me conforming me to Christ. I do not just seek his help to become better, as if to be a better version of my old self. The Christian is a fundamentally a new creation by which the old nature is gone (2 Corinthians 5:17) and it is this new creation that is central to living Christianly (Galatians 6:15).

Values provide the bearings for leadership in times of crisis or change, as well as times of steadiness or success. When we live as truly integrated people who best blend the outer and inner self as a coordinated whole we will hit our ‘sweet spot’ for the maximum health of our organisation and the people around us.

The world of self best intersects with the world of others when the relational glue is pervaded by the overflow of values that characterise the true self. Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom, as Parker Palmer has famously stated.

For others we influence, too, our impact will best be felt as our true self is permitted to shine and to therefore more easily shape the true self within them.

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