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Building rapport with self | How our leadership identities can restrict or propel our capability

Leadership is not a one-size-fits-all endeavor. It is a deeply personal and authentic expression of the self. Your identity, a complex mosaic of experiences, values, beliefs, and aspirations, shapes the leader you are destined to become. It can be your greatest asset or a stumbling block on your path to progress.


Identity can be likened to an iceberg, where what we perceive on the surface represents only a fraction of the intricate depths hidden below. Authenticity, justice, and mental well-being are vital domains that demand connection to our sense of self and our leadership styles.


"Nurture your own authenticity, champion justice, and prioritize the well-being of your team, for in these actions, you'll find the essence of true leadership." - Bill George

Leadership Identity Barriers

Our identity can get in our way restricting our growth as leaders and limiting capability of the teams that follow us. Some common instances where our identity get in our way include -


Impostor Syndrome

We doubt our abilities and feel like we don't belong or deserve our leadership role due to aspects of our identity, such as gender or age. A young manager may doubt their ability to lead a team of experienced professionals, assuming that their age hinders their credibility, which isn’t necessarily true.

“Im too young to lead a team”


Fear of Rejection

We fear being rejected or judged based on aspects of identity that can lead to hesitation in making tough decisions or voicing unpopular opinions. A leader who identifies as introverted may avoid speaking up in meetings, fearing they'll be seen as less confident or assertive.

“I’ll let the more confident people speak in meetings”


Misaligned value systems

When our values significantly differ from those of our team or organisation, it can lead to frustration and conflicts, impacting the ability to lead effectively. We frequently overlook the fact that their frustration often stems from individuals' behaviors conflicting with their core values.

“Why doesn’t my team work as hard as me? It’s so frustrating”


Stereotyping

Preconceived notions and biases, whether self-imposed or from others, can limit a our ability to see the full potential in team members regardless of their identity. We might underestimate the leadership potential of a team member from a different cultural background, assuming they won't understand the company's values. We almost become like sailors refusing to navigate new waters because we believe only our own map can lead the way.

“He’s new to the industry and will take some time to get up to speed”


Perfectionism

The pressure to conform to certain standards related to identity can lead to perfectionism, which can hinder decision-making and risk-taking. Perfectionist leaders might micromanage their teams, unable to delegate authority or trust their subordinates to handle tasks independently. This not only slows down productivity but also demotivates employees who feel their contributions are undervalued.

“Don’t make a move without my approval”


Avoidance of Difficult Conversations

Avoiding necessary but uncomfortable conversations to maintain a positive identity perception, even if it's detrimental to the team or organization. A leader may hesitate to address a team member's performance issues because they fear being seen as too critical or unsupportive.

“I’ll handle this later. There is no rush to deal with it now”


Inflexibility

Resistance to adapting leadership styles or approaches due to a strong attachment to one's identity can hinder our ability to connect with diverse team members. A leader who grew up in a strict hierarchical culture may struggle to adapt to a more collaborative and open work environment.

“I've always been a top-down decision-maker”.


In-group Bias

We may unconsciously favour individuals who share aspects of our identity, leading to unequal opportunities and hindered diversity and inclusion efforts. A manager consistently promotes employees from the same cultural background or alma mater, overlooking equally or more qualified candidates from different backgrounds.

“It's important to stick with what we know and trust”


Over-Identifying with the Role

When our identity becomes too entwined with our role, it can lead to burnout and difficulty in separating personal identity from professional identity. A leader who strongly identifies as a workaholic may struggle to maintain a healthy work-life balance - rarely takes vacations and struggles to detach from her job even during personal time -, negatively impacting their well-being and effectiveness, leading to burnout.

“I'm always available, and I expect the same from you”.


Culture, values, beliefs, and background are the elements that give depth and nuance to the canvas of your identity.


Culture, a powerful influencer, encapsulates the traditions, customs, and societal norms that shape your worldview. Whether you were raised in the vibrant bustle of a metropolis or the warmth of a close-knit rural community, your culture molds how you perceive the world and interact with others.


Values, the North Star of your moral compass, are the guiding principles that steer your choices. They are the constants that influence your decisions, both as an individual and as a leader. Knowing your values is akin to having a beacon in the stormy sea of decision-making; it keeps you grounded.


Beliefs are the stories we tell ourselves. They are the narratives that shape our understanding of the world, of people, and of our place in the grand scheme of things. Beliefs can be empowering or limiting, often determining our perspectives and reactions.


Your background, in its broadest sense, encompasses the totality of your life experiences. It's your history, upbringing, education, and the myriad of interactions that have left their mark on your being. Your background provides the lens through which you view the world, influencing your perspective.


Geert Hofstede's cultural dimensions theory suggests that culture significantly influences our values and behaviors. This theory identifies cultural dimensions like individualism-collectivism and uncertainty avoidance, which impact how individuals perceive the world and interact with others.


In a multinational corporation, a leader from a collectivist culture may prioritize team harmony and consensus-building, while a leader from an individualistic culture may emphasize individual achievement and competition.


Here are five ways you can navigate the interplay between identity and leadership.


1. Self-Exploration and Reflection:

Begin your journey by delving into self-exploration. Reflect on your cultural background, values, beliefs, and personal history. Understand how these elements have influenced your leadership style and decisions.

Keep a Leadership Journal

Dedicate time each day or week to journal your thoughts and reflections on how your cultural background, values, beliefs, and personal history impact your leadership decisions. Write down specific instances and insights that arise during your self-reflection.


2. Cultivate Cultural Sensitivity:

Embrace cultural sensitivity as a key component of your growth. Learn to appreciate and respect the diverse cultures and backgrounds of your team members. This will enable you to lead more effectively in a multicultural environment.

Cross-Cultural Learning

Choose a culture or background different from your own and immerse yourself in learning about it. Read books, watch documentaries, or even connect with someone from that culture. Reflect on how this new knowledge can enhance your cultural sensitivity and leadership.


3. Align with Values and Adaptability:

Align your leadership style with your core values, ensuring authenticity and trust. Simultaneously, cultivate adaptability in your leadership approach. Recognize that different situations may call for varying leadership styles, and be open to adapting accordingly.

Core Values Assessment

List your core values and assess how they align with your leadership decisions. Identify any areas where there might be conflicts or opportunities for better alignment. Also, practice adapting your leadership style by consciously switching between different approaches based on the situation.


4. Empower Diverse Voices:

Empower and encourage diverse voices within your team. Create an inclusive space where everyone feels valued and heard, regardless of their background. Recognize the unique strengths and perspectives each team member brings to the table.

Inclusive Team Discussions

In your team meetings, intentionally create space for diverse voices to be heard. Encourage team members to share their perspectives on a particular issue or project. Actively listen and acknowledge each contribution, fostering an inclusive environment.


5. Commit to Lifelong Learning and Mindful Leadership:

Dedicate yourself to continuous learning about different cultures and perspectives. Actively seek feedback from your team members and colleagues to improve your leadership. Champion diversity and inclusion initiatives, and maintain a healthy work-life balance to practice mindful leadership effectively. Your personal growth as a leader is an ongoing journey; embrace it with an open heart and mind.

Weekly Learning Goals

Set a weekly learning goal related to understanding different cultures, leadership techniques, or personal growth. Allocate dedicated time to achieve this goal, whether it's reading a relevant book, taking an online course, or attending a diversity workshop. Additionally, practice mindfulness by setting aside a few minutes each day for meditation or deep breathing exercises to enhance your self-awareness.


To wrap up, effective leadership is deeply personal and shaped by one's identity, which comprises cultural background, values, beliefs, and experiences. It highlights the importance of understanding how one's identity influences leadership, with a particular focus on the potential pitfalls and challenges that may arise. These challenges include impostor syndrome, fear of rejection, misaligned values, stereotyping, perfectionism, avoidance of difficult conversations, inflexibility, in-group bias, and over-identifying with one's role. To navigate this interplay between identity and leadership, the article offers five practical exercises, including self-reflection, cross-cultural learning, core values assessment, promoting diverse voices, and committing to lifelong learning and mindful leadership. These exercises empower individuals to grow as leaders by leveraging their identity while also becoming more inclusive and adaptable in their leadership roles.

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