Upgrade Your Identity

Every next level of your life will require a different you.
Leonardo DiCaprio 

Dave Grohl used to be the drummer for Nirvana. For many years he’s been considered one of the world’s best rock drummers. Now he’s the frontman and driving force of the Foo Fighters, with the guitar, not the drums, as his main instrument. With drumming at his core, he uses his innate sense of rhythm to write and perform memorable anthems that have made the Foo Fighters one of the most successful rock bands in the world.

I used to be a Chartered Accountant. Now I’m a leadership and culture specialist. While I’m no longer officially as CA, I use my knowledge of accounting, business and finance every day when working with clients to help me understand their context and challenges with a unique lens. 

Our identity is a label we give ourselves. It shapes our sense of who we are, our purpose, and how we show up. Our identity is a powerful determinant of the results we get.

Our identity is also a work in progress. As our context evolves, so too must our identity. 

How often have you seen leaders in roles where they rely primarily on their technical expertise to lead, rather than on cultivating and developing essential leadership skills. These people might be overheard saying “I’ve been so busy in 1:1’s with my people. I haven’t got any of my real work done.” They’re missing the point, right? In their role, the people work is the work. 

Leaders who can’t (or won’t) evolve their identity to match the challenge of the work at hand risk holding back the potential that exists in their organisation (including their own). Teams and organisations that can’t evolve their identity risk becoming noisy distractions (at best) or completely irrelevant (at worst). 

Identity can be a tricky one to upgrade because it's often deeply linked with our sense of self-worth and security. 

For example, for five years after I finished practicing as a CA, I continued to pay my annual $900 fee to the Institute and do my 40 hours per year of mandatory professional development. I wanted to be able to say “I’m a Chartered Accountant”, as in my mind it carried heaps of credibility, and it made me more employable. 

In truth, it was simply a security blanket. One day I realised that I could save myself a bunch of time and money by simply saying ‘I’m a former Chartered Accountant’ without losing any of the cred. Smart, hey? Yet before I could make the call, I needed to be honest with myself and be OK with letting go of the old version of ‘me’.

Transcend and Include

Upgrading your identity is not actually about letting go of your old identity. It’s about transcending it. It means keeping the essence of the old one, and maturing it. Dave Grohl hasn’t stopped identifying as a drummer. He just evolved to be more than it. He’s not just a drummer. He’s a messenger, and an entertainer.

Yuval Noah Harari, the acclaimed author of Sapiens, started his career as an academic historian. I heard him say on a recent podcast that he describes himself as a ‘kind of bridge’ between scientific and historical disciplines. Can you see how that label opens up new ways of thinking and being that the label ‘historian’ might not?

The Direction of Identity Upgrades

When working with leaders and leadership teams, I’ve found that identity shifts tend to happen in a few ways:

  • away from ‘ego-centric’ leadership (it’s all about me) towards ‘eco-centric’ leadership (it’s all about the wider ecosystem I serve).  
  • away from ‘technical’ (what I know) towards ‘results’ (what I achieve) and ultimately towards ‘system’ (what I contribute)
  • away from a ‘problem focus’ (make this problem go away) towards a ‘possibility / purpose focus’ (create more of what we want to see)

Which one of these might be most relevant to you right now?

Ready for an Identify Upgrade?

Some questions for you to reflect on:

  • What’s your current identity (as a leader, friend, colleague etc)?
  • How does that currently serve you?
  • How might that be limiting you?
  • What’s the higher purpose that you could be serving?
  • What sort of shift in your identity could serve that purpose better?

Wharton professor Adam Grant says that comfort comes from maintaining your identity, while growth comes from evolving your identity.

What do you choose? Comfort, or growth?

Dig Deeper Newsletter

Sign up with your email to receive weekly leadership insights, tips, and inspiration from Digby.

Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.