Leadership and Identity—Look at Me! Look at Me! Look at Me! (Part 4 of 4)
We may not admit it, but most of us crave recognition and awards like a drug. Receiving honors gets us high. We love the buzz that says, “I’m better than you.”
Accolades, though fine on their own, can create an identity on which we base our self-esteem and worth. But it’s only a short-term fix, and the satisfaction quickly fades. The buzz wears off. Worldly recognition is a pursuit that never quenches the real need for significance and worth. The new gold plaque merely masks our insecurities.
So we seek after more, something bigger. Perhaps a more prestigious award. Another graduate degree. Another Fellow.
Don’t believe it? Bing the thousands of companies out there that make a living off our need for recognition. Peruse the corporate office walls. Facebook screams, LOOK AT ME!
You want to score a quick hookup? Talk up your target and pour on verbal affirmation and validation. Want to watch a coward become a hero? Entice him with a ribbon for his chest. Humans are complex for sure, but when it comes to our ego’s need for glory, we are single focused, simple minded, and easily led astray.
Hey, I’m stuck there in the “Look at me!” frenzy. I have sacrificed those most important to me just to win that coveted award. I worked longer hours than reasonable just to be ranked number one. I had to add cabinets to store my prizes. Heck, I spent three hours per day in the gym purely so I could outperform those half my age and get a medal around my neck to brag about it.
I know I’m not alone. I’ve watched marriages destroyed because some guy needed to upgrade his trophy wife. It’s madness! And I am determined to stop it in my own life.
Whoa, now, hold on a minute! There is nothing wrong with winning awards and being recognized for great service or whatever. True. But it becomes a problem when we make it the foundation for our identity. How do you know you have an identity issue? Ask yourself some key questions.
- Are you defensive reading this post so far?
- Do you perform so you can get your name engraved on a plaque?
- Do you covet the other guy’s award?
- At parties, do you brag about your trophies, medals, certificates?
- When in conversation, can you draw out the success of others without speaking a word about your last honor?
- Do you set performance targets because they are the right thing to do or because they will gather positive self-attention?
- Who do your pursuits make more famous, your employer or you?
- When you receive recognition, do you take all the glory or share it?
- When you receive recognition, do you display false modesty?
- Do you live for yourself or for others?
- Do you always need to be in control?
- Are you constantly bewitched by the legacy you will leave?
- When you don’t win what you want, are you ticked off?
If your identity is based on the need for external validation, what can you do?
First, get rid of people who feed you bullshit. You know who they are — the ones who make you feel good because they inflate your ego. Replace them with people who will be brutally honest and have no fear of repercussion. How do you know who they are? They’re the ones who make you mad.
A couple of my direct reports are good at this. I have staffers who are unafraid of me and get in my face. I love ’em! If there is nobody close to you who challenges you to the point of making you mad, you might need an identity reboot. Conflict, not flattery, is what helps build our character.
As I draw closer to the half-century mark, I find myself on a new learning curve. Man, the growth is painful. I’m OK with recognition and awards now as long as they are purely an external validation of an internal (team) reality. I won’t personally pursue them nor take actions for the sole purpose of personal fame.
Recently, I made the biggest mistakes of my life when I forgot who I was and chased false sources of identity. If it weren’t for mercy, I might not be writing this post. I’m committed to discovering who I really am so I never do that again. Finding my true self is painful and ugly, but at the same time, gloriously beautiful. And freeing.
I’ll leave you with this from one of my heroes, Saint Paul:
The very credentials these people are waving around as something special, I’m tearing up and throwing out with the trash—along with everything else I used to take credit for. And why? Because of Christ. Yes, all the things I once thought were so important are gone from my life. Compared to the high privilege of knowing Christ Jesus as my Master, firsthand, everything I once thought I had going for me is insignificant—dog dung. I’ve dumped it all in the trash so that I could embrace Christ and be embraced by him.
During this series, I pointed out that an identity based on what you do, how you look, or your titles and awards will not lead to fulfillment. What I’m learning is truth for me and it’s rooted in faith. I know I am Edward Marx. A follower of Christ. Here to serve and point others towards the pursuit of truth. I might fail, but I will get back up and move forward.
Who are you? Where is your identity rooted?
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.