Leadership Lessons: Your identity – you are not your title

Leadership skills

Leadership lessons: Your identity – you are not your title  ·  

When you ask people who they are, their answers are often something like project manager, developer, engineer, director, vice president, CEO etc. , even outside the work environment.

While your work and title are a part of your identity, you should not let them completely define who you are. The best reason not to is to think about what happens if you lose your job. If your identity is completely tied to your work title, what do you think happens to it when you suddenly lose the title? You guessed right; your whole identity is at risk of going up in flames and shattering.

I don’t know if there are actual studies on this, but I would be ready to bet quite a bit of money that this is why we sometimes hear about people committing suicide after losing their job. Their whole identity was tied to that title and work, and once someone took it away, their identity got shattered and suddenly they were completely lost in their life. Without identity, security, and any idea about the future, it is hard to see the bright side of things and start looking for another job (or identity).

My own lesson in leadership and life:

I learned this the hard way myself when I left my first director position after a major restructuring of the organisation. I had to choose between staying in a position that I did not want any more or leaving with a decent settlement but without any knowledge of my next employment opportunity. I chose to leave, but as I had not properly prepared for leaving and hunting for a new job, I was suddenly hit by an identity crisis. I had dedicated my life to that company and worked unbelievably hard to get the position and the title that came with it. Suddenly I did not have the title, position, or my teams, and that made me really question my whole identity and the purpose of my life: Was I still a leader, even though I did not have a single team or person to lead? Would I ever get another position like that? What would happen to me now that I was unemployed? What would my family and friends think? Unconsciously I was, of course, feeling the loss of status, and that made me feel even worse. I also felt totally out of control, as even though I had made the decision to leave by myself, in reality, I did not have a meaningful position in the company, and I had to leave. It was hard to understand how everything I had worked for was so suddenly taken away by some unseen forces somewhere many levels higher in the company. I had absolutely no way to fight back, except by accepting the situation and moving on towards something better in the unknown future.

My doubts about the future started to dissolve quite quickly, as I quickly started to get booked for interviews for new promising positions, and I even got recruitment calls from foreign companies that I had never heard of before. However, while all of this was happening, I was still struggling with my identity, as I was still clinging to the director title and position of my old company. Only after a few long sessions of thinking and self-reflecting, I started to understand that what I was, and what I could do, was not tied to my old company and title. I started to understand that they were just a means of expressing myself and opportunities to use my skills and knowledge, and that there would be many other chances in the future to do all of that and much more. Also, I came to realise that I had not lost anything of myself in leaving my position: I had taken everything valuable with me; my skills, experience, knowledge, attitude, and my mindset. I came to understand that to be a leader I did not need a team or employer; it was about how I took care of my things, how I interacted with everyone around me, and how I managed all the aspects of my life. “Director” was only my old job, a “leader” was what I am, with or without a job and titles.

This is also why I always recommend that you remember that if you are working for someone else, your main focus should always first be working for yourself, and by working for yourself, contributing to the company. When you are employed by a company, you are at their mercy, and they can get rid of you for some arbitrary reason or decision so far above you head that you will never learn the real reason behind it. In the worst cases, it doesn’t matter how well you are doing your work and how liked you are by your colleagues and immediate management. When some large-scale organisational restructuring requires your team, department, or position to be removed, you are out of luck.

What I mean by this is that your highest loyalties should lie with yourself; in developing yourself, your skills, and your own career. You will benefit your company tremendously if you do this using the instructions given in this book, so it is a win-win for both you and the company. However, make no mistake, when your company is in trouble, or someone up in the chain of command doesn’t like you or feels threatened by your quick career advancement and aspirations, you will be let go as a normal course of business. When this happens, you will be able to take with you only the things you have created inside yourself while working in the company: Your experience, skills, reputation, attitude, knowledge, and hopefully a handful of good contacts. Everything else stays with your employer, even your title. If your identity and ego are still tied to this title and employer at this point and you have no other plans or employers lined up, this can be the worst day of your life.

In my book, 7 Principles of becoming a Leader, I am showing you strategies to ease the control that your employer has over your whole life. Hopefully, this will help you to get back some measure of control for yourself. If you do not take the control back into your hands and fight back, you will be living in a situation where one employer is controlling your time, your level of income, career advancement, your status in society, and in the end, your financial security, as they can easily let you go whenever they want. As far as I am concerned, that is a situation I never want to be in again. Do you?

Some countries have better protection for employees than others, especially regarding firing of personnel. But even without that risk, if your current employer is the sole decision maker controlling your income level, career advancement, your time usage, and where you work etc., you can never feel that you are in true control of your own life, and as you might remember from our motivation chapter, freedom to live your life as you wish is one of the three higher motivators on the top of the pyramid.

Always perform at the best of your ability

Note that I don’t advocate not giving your best for your company. On the contrary, you should do that, and only that. But you should do it with the understanding that everything you do, you do for yourself first and foremost, and by doing the best for yourself, you are also doing the best for your company. When you perform at your highest level, constantly innovate and train yourself further, you create a win-win situation for both you and your company. And when the time comes to part ways, you will have all your experience and skills to take with you. When you leave, leave the employer in better shape than it was before you, and make sure that you come out of it as a much better version of what you were when you started there. In the end, self-development and gained experience are the only sure and permanent things you can count on gaining from your employment (besides the obvious financial rewards and other perks you get while working there).

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