The Identity Crisis & the Lie We Can’t Believe

by Stephen T. Messenger

8 March 2022

There’s a lie about our identity we all succumb to at times. I know because I’m tempted by it every day.

This world encourages our identity as a person and a leader to be constantly in flux. It’s based on a simple (and destructive) math equation:

My Identity = My Performance + What Others Think of Me

Do not believe this lie!

The problem with this equation is that everything is variable.  First, my performance fluctuates over time—some days I’m crushing it at work, sports, and parenting.  Other days I struggle.

Second, what others think of me constantly changes and often is speculative, at best. I then drive home after work with an identity shaped by various encounters, often taking baggage home.

Identity Lie Chart

Add these two up and my identity is completely unstable.

Imagine two stories from my job.

Day 1. “Work was amazing! I crushed the presentation I told you about. My boss noticed and told everyone in the room, ‘This is the example for all future projects.” It was awesome—I can’t wait to go in tomorrow!”

Day 2. “I struggled today. I lost my keys, showed up a little late, and missed that deadline. My boss noticed and let me know how disappointed he was. Peter looked at me like I was an idiot. I’m kind of embarrassed and really don’t want to go to work tomorrow.”

If I believe the identity lie in these two situations, my attitude the next day is going to be vastly different. Leaders, instead, need a constant identity.

Your people are always looking at you. They’re watching how you lead in good times and bad. They then emulate the attitude, behavior, and culture you bring, regardless of what happened or what others think.

NFL Quarterbacks live this every game. The home crowd loves them (except in Philadelphia), and the opposing crowd hates them. They must forget the last interception when starting the next series. They don’t have the luxury of letting performance or opinion influence their identity.

George Washington knew this well. His life was full of veritable highs and lows—mostly lows—during the Revolutionary War. In the winter of 1777, he led his Army to Valley Forge after a series of losses and the British capture of Philadelphia.

His performance was suffering, there was a shortage of supplies, disease ran through the camps, and he had limited funds. Accordingly, some members of the Continental Congress were calling for his removal due to incompetence.  By the identity math equation, George Washington’s personal and leadership identity should have been as low as the Valley Forge temperatures.

It would have been easy for him to give up. Not much was going well at this point, and his own Congress was debating replacing him. Yet George Washington knew his identity was more than performance plus reputation.

As leaders, our identity needs to be grounded in something other than work performance. We will inevitably fail, and others will often be disappointed with us.

The United States Air Force talks about identity through four pillars of Comprehensive Airman Fitness: mental, physical, family, and spiritual.

These pillars are more stable than fluctuating performance and opinion. Leaders instead have strength and stability grounded in mental toughness, physical fitness, family foundations, and/or spiritual bedrock.

The painting, “The Prayer at Valley Forge” depicts George Washington alone in prayer. According to the journal of local Nathaniel Snowden, he heard a story from Isaac Potts, who was eyewitness to Washington kneeling in the snow offering prayer for his Army and fledgling Nation.

George Washington didn’t believe the lie that his identity and worth were based on his performance or others’ perceptions. If so, he would have been a leadership mess in front of his Army.

In Washington’s case, he flipped the equation to where his identity was based on the love of his wife Martha and his country, mental endurance, exceptional fitness, and trust in his God.

Through this, he was able to maintain a positive identity and lead his army out of Valley Forge stronger than when he arrived.

Identity Truth Chart

Leaders must break the mindset of performance and opinion driving their mood. They must show up every day grounded in values that sustain them over time. Don’t believe the lie that your leader identity is based on your performance and what others think of you.

Acknowledge failures and that we are all flawed. Accept that not everyone will like you all the time. And show up every day ready to lead with a contagious identity that exudes success.

Ignoring this worldly identity lie and grounding yourself in enduring qualities that stand the test of time will allow you to lead more effectively and consistently.

I encourage you to continue this journey with us and join The Maximum Standard family. Subscribe here to receive a free newsletter every Tuesday – no ads, no cost, just leadership. We hope you’ll improve along with us!

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