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.