In Barack Obama’s 1995 memoir, Dreams from My Father, he tells of a crisis of identity while at Occidental College in 1979. One night, listening to Billy Holiday, he had the painful recognition that he had lost his way, and he said to himself, “Your ideas about yourself–about who you are and who you might become–have grown stunted and narrow and small.” (p.110) The self-criticism reflected his sudden awareness that he had come to disdain the moral compass received from his mother (“Look at yourself before you pass judgment. Don’t make someone else clean up your mess. It’s not about you.”). And he had come to disdain it because it was identified in his mind with the hypocritical moralizing of white people in their relations with black.

This crisis lead to his reclamation of an identity that did not deny the realities of race, and power, of prejudice and injustice, but affirmed that we are not relieved of our responsibilities as a result. He says, “My identity might begin with the fact of my race, but it didn’t, couldn’t, end there.”

This lesson led to a new determination for Obama, but it is not his lesson only. It is the lesson for anyone called to creative leadership. Can we recognize how our fears, our uncertainties, our limiting self-definitions stunt our sense of who we are and what we are about? At its most powerful, leadership is a calling, a vocation, and we deserve leaders who recognize that they have the power to dissolve the walls that limit their tribes.

How do we arrive at such a recognition? Unflinching honesty about oneself is a start. Commitment to the highest values we can know is another. Perhaps a refusal to over-identify with our own tribe (Democrat, Republican, Female, Male, “hyphen” American, etc.). Does my identity limit the respect I show someone else, or a group of someone-elses? My identity is composed of all the selves I contain, but as a leader I must be someone more, as well. I must be a sign of hope, commitment, and a shared future for all. The stunted alternative is not attractive or worthy of the name Leader.

Doug

4 thoughts on “A Leader’s Identity

  1. I agree, Obama’s book is a wonderful example of the trajectory of personal and leadership development. These are all great points about the essentials of leadership skills – personal honesty, integrity, and the ability to admit when your focus has gone array. All leaders, and human beings for that matter, need to take a step back and evaluate at different points in their lives. For some, the opportunity to re-evaluate is thrust at them from an external source of tension, which appears to be the case for many executives in this current economy. At other times, a personal change occurs from within. Either way, a true leader identifies and acknowledges the opportunity and seeks greater growth and transformation during these times.

  2. I agree, Obama’s book is a wonderful example of the trajectory of personal and leadership development. These are all great points about the essentials of leadership skills – personal honesty, integrity, and the ability to admit when your focus has gone array. All leaders, and human beings for that matter, need to take a step back and evaluate at different points in their lives. For some, the opportunity to re-evaluate is thrust at them from an external source of tension, which appears to be the case for many executives in this current economy. At other times, a personal change occurs from within. Either way, a true leader identifies and acknowledges the opportunity and seeks greater growth and transformation during these times.

  3. Douglas Riddle says:

    Dear Erica,
    Great observation about the sources of the provocation to re-evaluate!
    Over and over again, I hear leaders in major companies complain of the lack of time to think or reflect–and it is framed as something out of their control. It is terrifying to think that we control the fates of thousands or millions as leaders, but cannot muster the time to think about what we are doing and whether it is the right thing or not. It seems obvious to me that someone like Obama is conscious that he has prepared for this role all his life, not primarily by following his ambitions, but by learning everything he could from the experiences he has had. Many of us have simply collected experiences without saving the lessons we paid for.

  4. Douglas Riddle says:

    Dear Erica,
    Great observation about the sources of the provocation to re-evaluate!
    Over and over again, I hear leaders in major companies complain of the lack of time to think or reflect–and it is framed as something out of their control. It is terrifying to think that we control the fates of thousands or millions as leaders, but cannot muster the time to think about what we are doing and whether it is the right thing or not. It seems obvious to me that someone like Obama is conscious that he has prepared for this role all his life, not primarily by following his ambitions, but by learning everything he could from the experiences he has had. Many of us have simply collected experiences without saving the lessons we paid for.

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