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Identity and the Leader
I vividly recall, at age 17, jumping off the bus at the in-processing station of Ft. Dix, New Jersey, where a drill sergeant greeted me—screaming. By the third day, I was wearing a uniform, had a shaved head, and was organized into a squad and a platoon.
The drill sergeant shouted, “Look to your left, look to your right, and now look down at yourself. In nine weeks, one of you will not be here, because you do not have what it takes to be a United States warrior!” Gulp. He scared the crap out of me.
But looking around myself, I determined I was better than at least one or two of my fellow trainees. Yep, I would be OK.
A couple of weeks after I graduated as Private Marx, I entered freshman orientation at Colorado State University as a poster child for insecurity. I have no recollection of who spoke that day, but I do remember him saying that 80,000+ students had graduated in the past 100 years. I pondered the odds and decided that surely there were other bozos who made it, so I, too could succeed.
Since childhood, the comparison method had been a pervasive mindset. My identity had been in what I was rather than who I was. And I had based my success on what I could create rather than why I had been created. I floundered under that junior-high mentality of “I am significant because you are less significant.”
This warped attitude gave me a false confidence in the workplace. I compared myself to my peers and to those above me. Sometimes I would try to learn from others who were stronger and smarter than I, but more often than not I would pounce on their weaknesses to climb over them and up the career ladder. Sure, my skills and talents have helped boost my success, but I was also counterfeiting my identity and confidence based on others’ deficiencies and weaknesses.
Leaving that mindset behind, I’ve been searching for the real me and trying to live as the genuine Ed—insecurity surrendering to conviction.
After qualifying for the USA national championship Duathlon (run-bike-run) as an average athlete, I had just hoped to finish the darned race. Qualifying for a spot on Team USA was not only about to become a dream come true, but also a test of my desire to be the genuine Ed.
At first, I suffered second thoughts based on my insecurities. The odds for success were not in my favor. In fact, competing at this elite level, I would likely end up embarrassing myself. But there I was already comparing myself again. Yet this was my only shot to compete with the gifted.
When I arrived in Tucson and began the registration process, I started doing what most athletes do—comparing myself to others. That guy has less body fat. Another athlete was clean-shaven all over. The guy next to him had a $10,000 bike. The woman in the corner was sponsored … And pretty soon I stood there mentally defeated with the race a mere two days away. I was still basing my success on how I compared to others, not on who I was.
Damn that warped thinking! I stopped it and chose to walk in the opposite spirit. I decided that what I had—a strong heart, a decent bike, and an OK albeit hairy body—was sufficient. I chose to look forward and not to my right or left. The outcome wasn’t in my hands anyway. As an athlete, what mattered was, how will my stats in this performance compare to my stats in the previous races? Was I improving? Forget the guy racing next to me. If I was meant to represent Team USA at the 2014 World Championships, then that would happen.
Identity is a tricky thing. What is it? How is it formed? How does it impact who we are and our performance? Most of the time, I base my identity on how I believe I compare to others. I suspect most of us are mis-wired to think this way.
I don’t claim to have it figured out; I already proved that. My true identity is squaring who I was made to be and living congruent with this truth. I’m still working on it, but as I approach 50, I’m finally getting close. If these ideas help nudge you in the right direction, I will have accomplished my goal for this post.
Some self-reflection ideas:
- Is my life/career mission about me, or about the betterment and growth of those around me?
- What do I stand for?
- Do my values reflect a desire to see others succeed, or do they revolve exclusively around my personal success?
- Does my behavior reflect a value for the human soul?
- What’s my gauge for comparison: other people or stable virtues?
- Am I able to sincerely rejoice in others’ accomplishments, or do I have to one-up people all the time?
- Do I go to bed praying that no one finds out how insecure I am?
Who are you really? And are you happy with you?
To view my full reflections in depth, leave a comment with a request and I’ll send you “Identity and the Leader” Part 2.
Ed Marx is a CIO currently working for a large integrated health system. Ed encourages your interaction through this blog. Add a comment by clicking the link at the bottom of this post. You can also connect with him directly through his profile pages on social networking sites LinkedIn and Facebook and you can follow him via Twitter — user name marxists.