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Becoming CEO: Why Identity Development Matters

  • 10 December 2020

When assessing candidates for CEO succession, the learning must be weighed carefully against the stark reality that the CEO position is like none other. As one former CEO and Chairman (who has sat through numerous top transitions) recently offered: “no one is prepared for that level of step-up or responsibility.” His observation is only magnified by the mounting evidence that successful CEO performance is being “completely redefined.” As he put it, “In the old days, there was a challenge for financial performance that was easy to measure.” Today, stakeholder management takes up at least 50% of the role. ”There are no simple metrics, there is no stock price on diversity, for instance. . . [T]he repercussions of performance are just not the same.”

Against this evolving backdrop of what the job actually looks like, identifying who the CEO is and how she/he will lead is extremely valuable. Employees, customers, investors and a host of other stakeholders are looking expectantly to CEOs to step up as purposeful leaders and to offer more inspiration, in addition to direction to their organizations and the wider people systems that they can influence as part of their business community(ies). Every day, we see abundant evidence reminding us about how critical the choice of who sits in the CEO seat really is—how essential it is to understand clearly their level of self-awareness and how they think about their duties to others.

To reach the state of awareness and servant leadership that stakeholders are requiring, potential CEOs need to arrive at their own emboldened and grounded place of identity – of who they are and who they want to become. Gaining the distinction between “doing” the job and “being” the leader is imperative for the development intention to come from the right place. The essence of impactful leadership hinges on coming to understand, as one sitting CEO put it, “how to really lead from the top.” Inspiring and winning the hearts of the people authentically, from a place of “being,” is no simple task; it is an ongoing process of courageous listening and feeling, and careful choice-making. Our Chairwoman, Jill Ader, explains that “The ability to ‘break through’ and own and embrace one’s full identity is extraordinary to experience. It separates the good from the truly great leaders of our time—and enables those that will follow.”

How do emergent leaders get there?

Simply put: by investing in learning who they are and developing for who they want to become. Reaching full leadership potential means giving oneself the space and the time “to connect your head, heart and gut,” explained one leader. As to the process, one Chairman reflected upon the success of the customized development of the ultimate appointee: “All was related to presenting the huge opportunity in front of the candidate, recognizing their dreams and confronting their reservations, showing how it could enhance their life and the life of othersand how they can do it on their own terms.” (It is important to note that many top candidates today are often unsure if they even want to take on the job of CEO, especially internal contenders who may be faced with following a “rock star” as well as leading former peers.) Much of the practices nurturing and fortifying a leader’s identity revolve around bravely exploring the core question: what is holding you back?

Before I can tell my life what I want to do with it, I must listen to my life telling me who I am.

Parker Palmer

London Business School professor Hermina Ibarra stresses in her work on this topic that, “The learning process is transformative.” At the start, most people do not see themselves as leaders; it is a journey that is usually initiated by a person’s curiosity about themselves, their potential, and the possible opportunities ahead. Those who end up going all the way become willing to let go of old habits and moorings, and to consider anew what may lie still untapped or unleashed in their being.

It takes focused and alternative approaches to self-discovery to bridge the learning from work experience-based success (which marks the bulk of people’s career trajectories) into the full realization of one’s leadership identity. The development journey depends upon transitioning from influencing based on expertise, to inspiring and winning the hearts of the people by connecting to shared human needs and across emotionsfrom the leader to the people and vice-versa.

To reach these heightened levels of development and identity shift, leaders must address their internal fears and beliefs systems that often unconsciously holds them back. Commonly, executives are cautious when taking this initial step, concerned that this uprooting could “rock the boat” and “make them lose their edge;” or worse, “make them look weak.” With courage, expert support, and caring work, rising leaders usually discover the very opposite: that many of the things which served them well for so long are no longer necessary or desirable for assuming the leadership mantle ahead. As one now highly successful CEO explained it, “The inner-work helped me see the places when I was trying to be perfect, to be a certain way and the amount of energy it was taking out of me….I am now aware that once you get to a certain level of leadership maturity, it is much more about being yourself, with authenticity and humility, that’s where the strength is.”

The growth comes upon moving through the discomfort of recognizing where the emotions and embedded patterns come from and grounding them through acceptance. It is a rite of passage. With the pressures of success, people often adapt to certain ways they are “supposed to be.” But leaders who inspire lead by being their true-selves. That’s when they are at their best and real authenticity can be experienced. To get there, rising leaders learn to face and make sense of the sources of lingering, tenacious fears: fears of failure, of belonging, for example, and the self-limiting beliefs that can compound those fears—that the job entails too much sacrifice; that working on the self is selfish, etc. Through this self-discovery process, leaders learn about their unintended consequences; and they become more aware of why it was so difficult to set appropriate boundaries for their leadership, which will greatly benefit their forthcoming approaches to their engagement with stakeholders. Equally important, they come to understand how to better negotiate beyond the binary constructs of their self-limiting beliefs and embrace promising possibilities in the shades of grey in between. “What I learned from my [identity] work,” offered one CEO, “is to stare up at the stars … I see a world of possibilities…and when I have that sense of wonder, I bring the best of me into the organization.”

The crux of truly inspiring leadership is this confident awakening into self-discovery and the freedom of choice that comes with it. The work of developing that identity answers the decisive question: Who do I want to be as a leader?” The leader’s identity then is no longer something they aspire to, it is something they become—the stunning manifestation of their calling, where “their deep gladness meets the world’s deep need,” as the writer, Frederick Buechner, so beautifully expressed.

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