The rumble of the airplane engine sounded like a freedom song. My sabbatical from Catalyst had officially begun. Next stop: London, England.
For the first time in over a decade, I had no workplace responsibilities, no e-mail in-box to clear, no deadlines to meet. As with any new endeavor, I began laying out my expectations for the sabbatical, and first on my list was self-understanding. The Brad that once was had already begun slipping through my fingers, and I needed to know who would stand in his place. I wanted to explore the depths of who Brad Lomenick really is when my professional identity had been stripped away. Freedom met fear as the plane prepared for takeoff.
London was to be more than a vacation. Steve Cockram—my old friend who had encouraged me to take this sabbatical in the first place—was waiting for me there. We planned to spend three days peeling back the layers of my inner onion and surveying what existed at my core. Could any seventy-two-hour goal be more ambitious?
Looking back, I was really setting out to accomplish this goal in reverse order. The time to develop a habit of self-discovery is not after one has spent a decade in leadership, but before. If one doesn’t know who he is, how can he fully know how to live out what he feels called to? Influencers should lead from the inside out so that their identity shapes their leadership rather than the other way around.
For three days, Steve and I walked along the famous River Thames and sipped great lattes in English coffee shops. We did a lot of wandering and nearly as much talking. We even visited a few landmarks, including the Queen’s second home at Windsor Castle, intermittently processing what this change of season meant.
Over a decade, I had become Catalyst and Catalyst had become me. Every time Steve asked me personal questions about my identity, my primary impulse was to talk about Catalyst. Somewhere along the way, and I can’t tell you exactly when it happened, I had erased the line between me and the organization I was leading. This represented a critical failure on my part to develop one of the essential habits that every leader should constantly cultivate: a habit of self-discovery.
Most leaders are mission-minded. They focus on goals and tasks and achievement. That’s how they’ve ended up with influence to begin with. But the shadow side of this characteristic is the tendency to focus so tightly on a mission that one loses sight of the person pursuing it. Soon she becomes a ship without a captain, a body without a heart, a leader without an independent identity.
Unless one develops habits to combat this tendency, her identity can slip further and further away over time. The more one works in a particular field, the more one becomes identified with the job and the reputation she has gained through doing it. Before long, she ceases to be.
But if an influencer has no identity—if she ceases to be—she creates a fragile reality. She conflates who she is with what she does and constructs a house of cards that depends on succeeding or at least maintaining some semblance of organizational cache. That’s why job loss obliterates so many leaders. The financial deficit stings, but the identity loss decimates them. They no longer have an answer to the question, “Who am I?” At least not one they believe.
Developing a habit of self-discovery means creating intentional rhythms whereby one observes who he is, listens to his life, and strives to define himself apart from his professional assignments. This habit helps a leader connect to an organization without being consumed by it. While it may not seem pragmatic, it is vital. Unless one is rooted in his identity, he can never become a change maker. For as Jean-Paul Sartre wrote, “to be at all you must be something in particular.”
When it comes to identity, the danger isn’t just that the leader will cease to be. It is also that she will unwittingly become someone she is not. From fashion to Facebook, unseen forces begin driving each of us to become something or someone that we think will propel us further toward our mission. Without even realizing it, leaders can become something they never intended. As Jay Z inspires, “knowing who you are is the foundation for being great.” (this is from Master Class tv show on the Oprah Network)
Pastor Rick Warren has talked about this struggle and the way an ancient leader from a bygone era can inform modern influencers. After an Egyptian decree declared that Hebrew male infants should be put to death, baby Moses’ Hebrew mother placed him in a small boat and sent him down the Nile River. Pharaoh’s daughter discovered him and raised him as her own son.
At an early age, Moses had what Warren classifies “an identity crisis.”1 He was born a Hebrew and raised an Egyptian, born a slave and raised a noble.
Moses was tempted to forsake his Hebrew heritage and pretend to be Egyptian through and through. This would have certainly been a good career move. But God’s providence and wisdom had made Moses a Hebrew. And the soon-to-be liberator couldn’t forsake that. Even more, he couldn’t ignore the Egyptians’ unjust treatment of his countrymen and cousins.
But an often-missed verse about Moses—located in the New Testament rather than the Old, no less—teaches us something powerful about the importance of identity.
Hebrews 11:24 says, “By faith Moses, when he had grown up, refused to be known as the son of Pharaoh’s daughter.”
At first, one might assume this was as a brazen act of ingratitude. Pharaoh’s daughter not only saved Moses’ life; she made it better than he could have ever attained on his own. The level of education, nutrition, and experience he was given as Pharaoh’s grandson were unparalleled in the world. How could he turn his back on a woman—the only mother he ever knew—who had given him so much?
But when one considers the culture, the situation clarifies. In ancient cultures such as this, one’s ethnicity and nationality were a central building block of one’s identity. So for Moses to live as the Pharaoh’s son would mean choosing a false identity in pursuit of greater influence. He decides instead to own his true identity, and as often happens, the decision leads to even greater influence.
Reflecting on this, Warren says, “Be yourself. Don’t try to be somebody else. God made you for a purpose; he made you for a plan. There’s nobody who can be you except you.”
More on leadership identity and other leadership habits in H3 Leadership: Be Humble. Stay Hungry. Always Hustle releasing tomorrow.
Brad Lomenick is a renowned speaker, sought-after leadership consultant, and leader for 10 years of Catalyst, one of the largest young leadership gatherings in the country. He is the author of The Catalyst Leader, and H3 Leadership. More at bradlomenick.com.