Bob Lieberman's Blog

Commentary and Tools For Empowering Change

The Identity Crisis

I was in a workshop on natural resource sustainability last week. That's a big topic in Portland, and one I'm very interested in. In the workshop, one of my colleagues observed that some people don't hear the sustainability message because it makes them feel guilty. Imagine, he asked, how a discussion about diminishing oil reserves might be received by a corporate jet salesman. We agreed that the reception would likely be defensive, and we attributed this defensiveness to the salesman's concern for his career prospects.

My colleague challenged us to go deeper. He suggested that the real root of the salesman's defensiveness might not be the fear of loss. It might be the shame and guilt of believing that the product he sells is hurting his fellow man. Stated in other terms, the discussion might threaten the salesman's identity, not just his livelihood.

These observations illustrate the subtle power of identity in organizational dynamics, from the simplest conversations to major initiatives. People will not entertain new ideas that undermine their identities. And unless new (and better) identities can be imagined to take their place, content can't get a fair hearing. To address this reality, a leader must make it easy for people to re-imagine themselves, and may need to actually propose their new identities in order to help the process along.

For the creative leader, identity considerations are even more important, because the creative process is a kind of rolling identity crisis. It moves through stages, each with its champions and stars who must seize the initiative at the right moment. But then they must let go of the initiative. If they can't do that, the creative process grinds to a halt, creativity dries up, and (in organizations) the bottom line eventually suffers.

Letting go of the initiative can be frightening. In organizations where the practice is discouraged, it can be suicidal. In either case, serious discussions about letting go can precipitate an individual or organizational identity crisis that must be addressed in order for creativity to thrive. The way to address it is by discovering a new, fulfilling identity that the individual or organization is willing to embrace. Savvy leaders guide their colleagues in making that (self-) discovery.

In the case of the corporate jet salesman, a new identity as "representative for carbon-neutral high-speed transportation" might meet his need for social responsibility. His company would have to back it up, of course, and that would involve some more letting go. But that's another story.

(This post was featured in the November edition of Great Leadership's Leadership Development Carnival.)