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Identity-driven leadership: Who I am is how I lead

Leader lockThink of a leader you admire. Do you appreciate their ability to share thoughtful insights based on their experiences and perspectives? To listen with openness and the intent to truly understand? To develop ideas and solutions relying on their instincts and intuition? To be motivated by their personal passions and own visions of what’s possible? To be truly and consistently themselves in whatever settings they find themselves?

That leader you’re thinking of – is it you?

It’s easy to default to the images that most textbooks, mainstream media, and boards commonly portray as leaders. Older, whiter, male-r, highly educated, with a good work ethic and significant talent that often paired with privilege allows them to achieve great things.

And while there’s no doubt that people of color, Native Americans, and others with marginalized identities, are individually and collectively disadvantaged by systematic barriers, there is also truth that surviving the experience at the margins can generate some useful competencies and skills. These can include an awareness of the existence of multiple, sometimes paradoxical realities, and an abundant potential for empathy with life in an unfamiliar form. Harnessing these assets can be part of a strategy for healing from institutionalized racism and internalized oppression, and for living out the truth of who you are.

Randy Reyes, Artistic Director of Mu Performing Arts, a pre-eminent national Asian American theater company, says, “The most unique thing about your character is you.” So when onstage to play Juliet, if you can tap into how you as yourself would experience and respond to Juliet’s circumstances, you are not merely playing a character you envision based on having seen countless others’ portrayals of her, but instead are acting truly as though you were Juliet as the events of her life with Romeo unfolded. In this vein, rather than “play the role” of executive directors, CEOs, or program managers you’ve seen before, it is incumbent upon you to be yourself in that role in order to do your work authentically.

Who you are is how you lead. So, how? By cultivating these three practices, over time:

1. Know Yourself.

See yourself as you are. Not as who you were, could have been, or wish you weren’t. Understand that you have assumptions, beliefs, and practices that reflect aspects of yourself and your role among family, friends, and community. Reflect on how your social identities inform your vantage point, assess your Meyers-Briggs type, identify the themes that persist in your life, recognize how the native status or migration of your ancestors informs your sense of place and belonging, determine what activities give you energy, and see you for yourself. Rather than relying on the defaults that society provides, get to know the specifics of you in order to know intimately what you’re working with and what you need to be at your best.

2. Appreciate Yourself.

Rather than to wholesale like or dislike yourself, this is a request to withhold judgement and recognize that your genes, environment, social location, life experiences, and more impact who and how you are. If you can acknowledge that you are fundamentally human and thus perfect and flawed and tiny and grandiose all at once, it is easier to cultivate self-kindness. Developing greater compassion for how you’ve become who you are and why you operate the way you do can allow for increased gratitude for those things or conversely, openness to making adjustments that would be kinder to yourself.

3. Trust Yourself.

Knowing and appreciating yourself can lead you finally to invest in and be yourself. Take time regularly to tune in to your thoughts, questions, and gut instincts. Ask yourself, before asking others, for your opinion or what you think should happen. Whether you ultimately act on them or not, turn first to your own perspectives and reactions. Honing this understanding and respect for yourself can help you become more aware of and comfortable with leading from the place that is most unique to you. Seeing your ideas as valid and meaningful lets you see yourself as powerful, in a way that society’s structures and institutions may not soon reflect. In this way, you can lead on your own behalf as well as those who will rise even higher on your shoulders because you made the choice to stand up for yourself.

When institutions and systems are constructed in a way that leaves many at the margins, we must for ourselves and others at the fringes invest in ourselves and our leadership with clear and sustained intention. Doing so will help individuals and communities see that the definition of leadership and what leaders look like is more expansive than often depicted. Rather than fit an existing mold or overplayed character, do as Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls initiative suggests and “Change the world by being yourself.”

Learn more about Identity-Driven Leadership at Scattershot Cafe session on August 22 facilitated by Diane Tran, ‎Anna Hardeman, and Tenzin Kunsal.

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