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The first question of leadership: “Who are you?”

When working with new coaching clients,  I tend to model the approach of the caterpillar from Alice in Wonderland with his challenging question: “Who are you?” The vast majority of us tend take the answer for granted. Yet the truth is—whether you’re an experienced CEO, an emerging leader, or someone just beginning your career journey—there’s no question more fundamental to answer.

Regardless of your experience, or your knowledge of leadership theory, who you are is how you lead. Without developing an awareness of who you really are, you’re likely to continue following  old patterns which don’t work, and repeating the same mistakes over and over again.

Who you are is how you lead.

A great place to begin is to examine your core values. This is easier said than done. We confuse our values with our aspirations. I may wish to be as devoted and faithful as Gandhi, but his calling and my calling are not one and the same.

To find insight in this cumbersome dilemma, it often helps to find a new perspective—to come at the problem from a new place. In her book ‘Disrupt Yourself,’ Whitney Johnson offers some excellent advice. Instead of trying to identify your values straight on, ask yourself these questions:

1. What skills have helped you survive?

2. What makes you feel strong?

3. What exasperates you about others?

4. What made you different, even an oddball, as a child?

5. What compliments do you shrug off?

6. What are your hard-won skills?

Your honest answers to these questions may help you gain insights into what really makes you tick, and what your most honest values are. From this starting point, begin to develop a list of values that authentically apply to you. I like Johnson’s approach, but if you’re struggling, there are plenty of online exercises that will list dozens, even hundreds, of values. Google and go.

Once you’ve prioritized your top three to five values, it’s a good time to seek some outside help. Identify a few people who know you and whose honesty you admire, and ask them what they think of the values you’ve identified. Impress upon them that you will truly welcome their most honest and direct feedback. Trust me, you can handle it.

Exploring the question of who you are is a core part of your lifelong journey. It’s never too late to start. And the sooner we start – earnestly – the better.


Interested in diving deeper to discover how you can become a more creative and impactful leader? Drop us a line.

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