November 30


Embracing Your Leadership Identity

Do you find yourself spending too much of your work time “down in the weeds”, solving the beautifully interesting technical problems in your area of specialisation?  Do you experience a bit of ‘Imposter Syndrome’ from time to time?
If you answered “yes” to any of these, it may be that you haven’t fully embraced your leadership identity.
How our Work Identity Develops
You see, it’s rare that anyone jumps straight into a leadership role.  Most of us find our way there (either deliberately, accidentally or reluctantly) through our own area of specialisation.  Early in our careers we work hard at becoming a good Accountant/Engineer/Doctor/etc.  If anyone asks what we do, we are proud to tell them.  Our identity becomes heavily tied into our profession or area of specialisation.  That’s who we are and what we do.  If you join a professional group or membership society, then this identity is further reinforced.
Whereas your identity may be mostly internal, here’s how it makes itself known to the outside world.  Your identity (who you see yourself as) influences your perspective (where you put your focus), which in turn influences your tasks, time & energy (what you spend your day doing).  What you spend your day doing is very observable to others and helps them determine where you fit in the grand scheme of things.
If we work hard, we become good at what we do – our technical knowledge builds; our experience grows; we can solve increasingly challenging technical problems; we develop a reputation as the ‘go to person’ for that area of knowledge.  The satisfaction we feel from solving these complex problems is associated with the release of dopamine by the reward system in our brains.
How this gets in the way of our Leadership Identity
Herein lies the trap.  To keep getting the same reward hit, we need to keep solving more and more complex problems.  We are essentially being rewarded for going down increasingly complex technical rabbit holes.  Put simply:

I get rewarded for solving complex problems =
I want to spend more of my time solving complex problems.

If you are good enough (or hang around long enough), someone asks you to step into a management/supervisory role.  Sounds great until you realise that they want you to do more than go around solving technical problems.  Suddenly, you are being asked to adopt a different identity – that of “Manager” or perhaps “Leader”.  This is where expectations come in.

For many of us, our technical expertise/specialisation is our ‘safety blanket’.  It is where we are most comfortable and (even more importantly) it is where we get our sense of value from. The tighter we hold on to the blanket, the more time we spend down in the operational weeds.  The impact of this can be felt in the following:

  • Dissatisfaction from our organisation that we are not doing what we are being paid to do
  • Disempowerment of our staff who don’t have the opportunity to stretch their own technical wings
  • Perception of being a micromanager
  • Limitations on career progression

How to Embrace Your Leadership Identity

As you can see from the diagram above; it’s not that we let go of our ‘technical expert’ identity completely.  Rather, it becomes a subset of the broader leadership identity we have.  To help identify and embrace your leadership identity, try the following:

  1. Use the worksheet to plot your own I, P, T & E; to get a sense of where you are now and how it aligns with what’s expected of you
  2. Imagine meeting someone at a networking event who asks what you do – how would you answer in a way that doesn’t mention your technical background?
  3. Switch your focus and thinking from content (what I know) to process (how I get things done through others)
  4. Complete a leadership profile to help work out your preferences and what’s important to you
  5. Imagine you have been asked to lead a team in an area that you have no technical knowledge or experience in:
    • What skills would you rely on?
    • What processes would you use to lead your team to get the job done?

Ask yourself the following questions:

  1. How aligned are they?
  2. If your focus was on leading, how would you be spending your time and energy and on what tasks? How
    does this differ to what you are doing now?
  3. Who in your team has a good enough level of technical expertise that you could delegate technical, operation level problems to solve?
  4. How much time would delegating more technical issues free up in your day? How would you use this time?
  5. What difference do you want your leadership to make?

Access PDF Worksheet

Self awareness such as this, is a crucial ability for effective leadership. Leadership coaching and development, can help to increase self-awareness, self-mastery and building better leaders. 


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