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CIO Unplugged 12/18/13

The views and opinions expressed in this blog are mine personally and are not necessarily representative of current or former employers.

Leadership and Identity—I Look Better than You! (Part 2 of 4)

Part 2 was slated to just go to commentators of Part 1. But given the collective interest from the original post gathered via comments, LinkedIn, email, Facebook, and Twitter, I decided to expand into a public, four-part series. Here it goes….

You might argue with where the identity journey has taken me, but the fact is, all of us have been a counterfeit to one degree or another.

Does how you see me agree with reality? Do I even know who I am? Really?

Janis Ian nailed me with At Seventeen. Thank goodness I had a supportive family and a slight awareness of the love of our scandalous Creator, because when I first moved to the US as a pre-teen, I dressed unusually. Kids made fun of my German attire. As I came of age, acne invaded my complexion, giving classmates another reason to pick on me. I never got the girls I crushed on. I was ostracized and spinning downward in self-hatred.

Rather than surrendering to a super low self-esteem funk that could jail me for life, I fought for validation and identity via sports. Continual reinforcement from adults and peers convinced me that success on the playing field signified acceptance and popularity. Where a lack of clear-skinned attractiveness stole my self confidence, I made up for it through tennis and soccer. Sheer determination compensated for skill deficiencies.

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My idolized letterman jacket became like pure gold and epitomized my counterfeit identity.

Sports accolades helped establish an achievement-based identity. Extreme achievements gave me a sugar-like high that would in time fuel my adult lifestyle. This placebo-based identity would affect my relationships, both personal and professional.

As I passed through college and into my career, the focus on looks became less important than champion skills. But the deceptive ugly bug still had a grip. I compared myself to other men. I poured significant energy and resource into making myself look better. Excessive exercise, extreme diet, fine clothing, braces—anything to bury the insecurity.

My teeth! I had this Michael Strahan-sized gap between my front teeth, so I put myself through adult mini-hell—braces. The gap’s gone. But then they weren’t white enough. So I got them whitened, and lo and behold, I spotted someone with whiter teeth than mine. Ugh! A close friend complained that I was too hairy. What did I do? Yep, and after that painful process, the same friend said I was too white. Thankfully, I tumbled off the merry-go-round before the first tan session. What the hell was I doing?

Insanity! I’ve even contributed to this appearance ruse! I recall the day some fool cut me off in traffic and almost got us in an accident. Cursing, I pulled up to the person to flip the bird. When I saw she was gorgeous, I just waved. I’m embarrassed to admit that, but I know I’m not alone. When people are given a choice between two candidates, most tend to choose the prettier person.

I’ll never forget my final interview for a Fortune 50 management trainee program. I had made it to the final eight, of which they would select four for this prestigious position. The COO invited me into his office and dismissed the resume and questioning as he said, “At this level, all candidates have the same background . . . a graduate degree, high aptitude and strong skills. So I just want to look at you.” I was thinking, shit, this interview is over. Yep, I no longer “qualified” for the job.

I’s healthy to maintain yourself, look your best, and especially to remain attractive to your partner. But when we nail our identity to our frame and features, we have a major problem. Major! We all know people who are preoccupied with their mirrored reflection. Undoubtedly, as you age, you’ll be displaced by others more attractive.

Neither time nor gravity is on your side. If you try to compete, the number of hours and dollars you spend on your looks will only increase. In the end, guess what? Someone else will always be better looking. You’ll never be satisfied. Or rewarded. Grab some tissue and check out this video on the latest fashion trend.

I’ve awakened from the Hollywood delusion.

As I approach 50, here’s what I’m learning. I need to get out of the false identity trap that says my appearance is so grossly important. I do what I can to take care of myself, but I will no longer be excessive.

Here are a couple of self-tests. If a flare-up of acne determines whether you have a good or bad day, take a time out. If you’re more concerned about people liking your new hairstyle and less concerned about your derogatory comments to others, you have an issue.

The good news is that we can overcome. I am learning to accept myself as I’ve been created. I was meant to be 5’8,” so I embrace that height. If my genes say I’m balding, I’ll stop the ridiculous comb-over. If I am hairy, then . . . well, OK, I have to draw the line somewhere.

Here’s the deal. Allowing shallow people and a fluctuating society to determine my identity creates a lose-lose situation. My identity stems from what’s inside. Character triumphs over a perfect nose job. This cultural issue is nothing new. Two thousand years ago, wise men said:

“What matters is not your outer appearance—the styling of your hair, the jewelry you wear, the cut of your clothes—but your inner disposition.”

“We should be concerned most with the transformation of the inner man, not outward appearances…”

Traits that are skin deep are not worth obsessing over or bragging about. If you’re so vain you think this post is about you, it’s not. It me spilling my guts. But if you’re honest enough to admit to feeling pain while reading this, we might share a common struggle. Our value reaches much deeper.

As a leader on the slippery slope, where are you investing your time, money, and effort? In what’s skin-deep, or in the real you?

Stay tuned for part 3.

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.