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Dueling Identities

| July 4, 2023

by Sean McDonald

Today’s Tuesday Reading is from Sean McDonald, President of MOR Associates. Sean may be reached at [email protected] or on LinkedIn.

Happy 4th of July. 

Put yourself back 247 years ago. Yesterday, July 3, 1776, we would have considered ourselves British citizens living in a new land, and today, we would be declaring ourselves independent Americans.* That is quite a shift in identity, in how we view ourselves, how we guide our actions. 

For this country’s collective declaration of independence, each individual had to come to their own conclusion or decision. Changing context, personal experiences, and collective engagements all lent themselves to evolving beliefs and decisions. There must have been great inner tension, dueling identities for a long time before, an ‘ah-ha’ moment, a declaration for many: “I am… an independent American.”

In our leadership development work, we see this play out often. A building recognition that what was expected in the past, or how you saw yourself, was no longer serving you or others.  Something different was called for in the evolving context. A slow shift in awareness was needed, a call for change in behavior, habits, and identity. An ‘ah-ha’ moment that had been building for some time. One area I see this play out often is the dueling identities of being responsive versus strategic. Being a strategic leader means looking ahead and making time for your important priorities. MOR has done thousands of 360 leadership assessments. The score for the statement “Is responsive to urgent requests” often comes up the highest. This can bring a lot of pride, in being seen as someone who can be counted on, the reliable one. However, coaching conversations inevitably reveal how the person has a hard time attending to their most important priorities or looking beyond their immediate to-do lists. 

Can you be someone that always makes time for others and always makes time for completing your most important priorities? Attempts to always do both could be the description under a picture of a candle burning at both ends. I am intentionally emphasizing the word always to remind us that there is space between. This can help us see a path for change, an evolution in our identity, gradually making progress, bridging mindsets, and then, one day, suddenly finding ourselves there! As the famous Ernest Hemingway quote goes: “Gradually and then suddenly.”

By no means am I trying to simplify the complexities, and beauty, of one’s identity.  Rather, I am bringing closer the connection to professional development, and the power of how we see ourselves as leaders can greatly influence our behaviors. I have seen it firsthand. The slow shift from the “solver of every problem” to the “delegator and developer of others.” From “super doer” to “balanced leader.”  And perhaps my favorite: “the not so confident one” to “I am a leader.” These dueling identities are a journey.  In support of your next declaration of evolved identity, here are three steps to consider:

1. Reflect

As renowned educator John Dewey commented, “We do not learn from experience… we learn from reflecting on experience.”  What are your practices for making time to think and reflect? What are you learning about yourself, your evolution, your direction?  How are you developing further self-awareness about who you are, and who you need to be for what tomorrow may bring?

In this ongoing reflection, inputs matter. How are you staying up with forces, trends, and the evolving context around you? How are you seeking feedback? Remember, it is a gift!  Are you seeking alternative perspectives and staying open to new ideas?  I suspect that without these abilities, those of us in the United States would still be citizens of Great Britain.

2. Choose

Declare your independence to choose! Start where you are, and give yourself permission, declare, that is not where you have to be tomorrow.  Again, not to make this sound easy, but rather to remind us of the power of believing in ourselves.

As a leadership coach, seeing these sorts of transformations, the “ah-ha” moments, when someone declares, perhaps for the first time, to choose to be on a different path, can be jaw-dropping and inspiring. Declarations are sometimes a seed planted long ago, with gradual evolution and ample tension, until suddenly we find ourselves in a new identity. 

You could choose to be someone that has control over your calendar, versus someone that is controlled by your calendar. Maybe you choose to be someone that is intentional about getting to your important priorities, versus someone led by the daily immediate demands. It could even be as simple as choosing to be someone that says hello to your colleagues, versus walking with headphones on through the office hallways, or nearly invisible in a virtual meeting.

Sharing this declaration with others, perhaps even making a collective declaration, can be powerful. It can be a source of community, accountability, and maybe even independence.

3. Apply

The declaration of choice can be so powerful because it can lay the foundation for action. Unlike early settlers in Boston, perhaps you don’t need to dump tea in the ocean, but you can begin to more clearly see how actions support your shift in identity. James Clear’s book Atomic Habits connects these two things well: identity and habit. I appreciate his notion that each action you put forward in support of a new habit is a vote toward that identity. “I am the type of person that…”

Charles Duhigg’s book The Power of Habit is a framework both MOR and James Clear leverage to support developing a new habit. Cue-Routine-Reward. Identify a cue to enact a routine for which you then earn a reward.  With today’s theme of declaration of choice, your reward and routine are perhaps clear: your new identity and the actions that support it.  Create a cue you can leverage to support applying these new actions. You could simplify it as an “if-then” scenario, if a given cue happens, then I apply the action/routine.  For example, if I am walking down the hallway, then be sure to focus on engaging those I walk by.

Break the identity and habit you seek into smaller daily or weekly actions you can make part of your ongoing routines. These actions then impact how you see yourself as a leader and person. As James Clear suggests, “our habits shape our identities, and our identities shape our habits.” Powerful.

As we in the United States celebrate Independence Day, it serves as a reminder to contemplate the shifts we need to make in the year ahead. What changes are necessary to become the leaders we aspire to be? What aspects of our current identities do we need to let go of or transform to make room for our evolving selves? By embracing reflection, making intentional choices, and applying the principles of habit formation, we can embark on a journey of personal growth and become the confident and balanced leaders we aim to be.

*Note, as I planned this Tuesday Reading, given it was going to be released on July 4th, the tie to American Independence felt appropriate. I did, however, struggle with this country’s history with slavery and the treatment of native people living on these lands when European settlers arrived. I am planning a future Tuesday Reading on this topic: What Do Leaders Do With History?