Leaders: Don’t Confuse Your Role with Your Identity

Key Insights:

  • Your personal identity should inform your role as a leader, not the other way around
  • A leader’s core values should be the basis of their actions
  • Those who allow themselves to be defined by their roles are less effective at leadership
  • The continuous practice of self-awareness gives leaders the edge they require to define themselves authentically, which contributes to more effective leadership

Here’s a radical concept for you: Your identity is not defined by you; it is defined by the people around you.

That’s right – for all the power, responsibility and clout you may have as a leader, your legacy will probably not be defined by you. Rather, it will be defined by the people with whom you interact while you are in your role. That is why it is so crucial to avoid defining yourself by your role. The truth is that it’s not your job to assert your identity. Your job is to lead. There is a fine but critically important distinction between being a leader and doing the job of leadership.

The reality is that “leader” is just a title. It does not magically confer special abilities or skills upon you. The title of “leader” describes a role. What is truly important is what you do once you have been given your role. Certainly, your identity should inform the actions you take as a leader. Your identity comes from years of demonstrating certain actions and characteristics while honing your values and worldview. These aspects of yourself are integral to who you are, and they should absolutely influence your actions. Unfortunately, sometimes it is all too easy for leaders to reverse the order of things.

For some leaders, receiving the title of “leader” and stepping into leadership roles causes them to forget who they are and the core values that define them. Instead, they rely on the status and power that come from the role of leadership. They begin to define their identities based on the role that they have been given. This is almost always a formula for disaster.

Stepping into a leadership role should not change your identity or even bolster it. In fact, your identity as a human being should not change at all once you become a leader. Your identity and your role are two separate things. Your identity as a human being will enhance your efforts as a leader. But if you try to define your identity by pointing to your role, the results might not be what you expect for you and your organization.

Leadership Is Action, Not Identity

It’s all about what you do, not who you are. Your self-worth should not be defined by your professional fortunes. Furthermore, attempting to take on personality/identity characteristics to be more “leader-like” is a huge mistake.

Here’s what I mean: Sometimes people associate leadership with characteristics such as toughness, confidence, decisiveness and charisma. Therefore, when they become leaders and step into their new roles, they feel pressure to display these characteristics, whether they are authentic or not.

Leaders often do not trust themselves and who they truly are as human beings. In their minds, they hold ideals of leadership that can never be lived up to, and they may tend to force characteristics on themselves that do not come naturally. For example, if you have it in your head that leaders need to be tough and aggressive, but you are not a particularly tough or aggressive person, you are going to alienate your people and likely drive engagement downward. Your team members will see through your efforts and will note your lack of authenticity.

This is an example of role defining identity, which is the opposite of how things should be in leadership. In my view, the most effective leaders are those who let their identities guide their actions rather than having their titles define their identities.

Who Are You and What Are You Doing?

If you want to reach your true leadership potential, I believe you have to approach these questions separately.

At your core, you should have a healthy, well-defined sense of self. You should know who you are and what your core beliefs and values are. Being true to your core values builds integrity, which is an essential leadership characteristic. I know, I talk and write about self-awareness a lot, but it’s because it is so crucial to being an effective, grounded leader.

Once you have defined who you are and what you believe in, you can feel more confident and self-assured in your actions. They won’t be based on assumptions about what leaders ought to do in certain situations. Instead, they will be based on your core values. Additionally, when you have a well-defined and healthy sense of self, you are better able to integrate the ideas, opinions and innovations of others into your decisions and actions.

No longer will you be going it alone; you will truly be the leader of a team; whose members feel like valuable contributors to the greater mission of your organization.

It’s All About You… Until It’s Not

If you have been called to the role of leadership, you have to put in the appropriate amount of work in order to gain a healthy sense of self-awareness. It is not selfish to make it all about you as you reckon with the values and characteristics that define you. However, your goal should always be to better yourself so that you can be more useful to others. Leadership is not about hoarding power and wisdom for yourself; it’s about passing those qualities on to the people in your midst.

Once you have done the work of defining yourself and your identity, you can step into a leadership role knowing that you have a solid foundation from which to base your decisions and actions. All the work you have put into enhancing yourself and becoming more self-aware will pay off, and you will fill the role of leadership comfortably. Your actions, which are defined by your core values, will speak for you; you don’t need to derive power or influence from your title. Remember, your title is just a description of a role. Your identity, on the other hand, is what will give you the ability to inspire others, if you keep the proper perspective.

Ultimately, it comes down to this – your role could disappear or become irrelevant tomorrow. Your identity will be with you for the rest of your life. That is why it is so critical to focus on you as a person vs. your identity in your role. Your identity is what will make it possible for you to fulfill your role, not the other way around.

If you approach this effectively, you will be able to leave a lasting, positive impact on your organization and the people within it.

At the beginning of this piece, I posited that it’s not you who defines your identity; it’s the people around you that do. Yes, you can and should work on your self-awareness, but the impression you make on others is what will define your legacy. If you want to have a positive impact and ensure that your legacy is a positive and inspiring one, then it is important for you to be authentic, strive for continuous improvement and let go of the idea that your role as a leader automatically makes you someone worth following.  

What Do You Think?

What are your thoughts on the topic of role vs identity? I know this is a tricky set of concepts, but I truly believe that leaders who can separate role from identity are much better suited to inspire and engage their people. I would love to hear from you regarding this topic, so please send me an email at joanne.trotta@leadersedgeinc.ca and let me know what you think!

Ready to partner with LeadersEdge to drive organizational performance?

connect with us