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The leadership identity

Dr Andrew McDowell

It's often said that the Indo – European origin of the word leadership is leith which means "to cross the threshold" or "to go forth" or "to die". While this does sound rather dramatic in today's context; there is no doubt that anyone who has tried to take up the challenge of leadership will recognise that truly leading does require one to make a real and significant change and potentially sacrifices. It demands that we cross a threshold and see ourselves differently. It requires discipline to work on oneself and create alignment between our inner and outer worlds. It requires us to engage in the adventure of taking a journey without the certainty of the destination; and to be secure in ourselves and the values that guide us. In a sense, this does demand us to metaphorically "cross a threshold" or "die" as we take the older image or view of ourselves and work with it to birth a new identity, a new version of ourselves from which we can engage differently with the challenge of leading.

Purpose-filled leadership

Having a meaningful sense of leadership identity requires us to explore in detail who we think we are and why we think we are here. It cuts to the core of our beliefs about ourselves and our role in relation to others. Forming a new identity requires us to try out new ideas and explore what we hold as important so we can identify somewhere or something meaningful to move towards. These are difficult questions which result in challenging conversations with oneself, that many people, even those that may holding positions of leadership, have never really taken the opportunity to investigate. Why? Because it is not easy, there are no easy answers, and it is potentially quite uncomfortable. However, if someone does invest time and energy in the task of understanding and developing a deeper sense of identity, it creates the opportunity for a powerful sense of purpose to emerge, which can fuel and sustain more meaningful future actions.

A fundamental human need

There is a strong and growing trend towards the importance of purpose-filled leadership. Many talented and influential leaders from all walks of life are now waking up to a deeper need for a sense of purpose in what they are doing. They are responding to a fundamental human need - to feel like they are doing something that matters. We all want to contribute to something larger than ourselves, something we can be proud of. We all want to feel like we are making a difference. Indeed, people tend to be happier when they are contributing to something that extends beyond their own personal gain and has a lasting positive impact for others.

Acquiring a sense of purpose is an emergent process. There is no quick fix; purpose reveals itself slowly and as we are ready. We need to make space for it to unfold. We need to stay in relationship with the unfolding, in recognition that we are always evolving. It takes time, and requires us to engage with the inner and outer work needed to transform old identities and step beyond the threshold.

Committing to a relationship with your emerging sense of purpose takes work, but it generates energy, clarity and more meaning. Leading towards a purpose becomes an adventure where it is not the destination that is the reward, but the journey.

Dr Andrew McDowell

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