Who You Are Is How You Lead

“What do I have to do to be a good leader?”

This is the most common question I’m asked at the outset of any leadership coaching engagement. It’s a reasonable question, but not quite the right one.

Leadership is a deeply personal activity; who you are is how you lead. How you show up to your organization and those you seek to influence as a presence, as an individual, has greater impact than any specific “leadership behavior.”

While there are specific leadership behaviors that matter, we need to start with the “who” question: “Who am I as a leader?” Who you are and who you want to be in your capacity as a leader are the most important answers you can seek. Truly effective leadership requires a strong sense of identity.

Merriam-Webster top-listed definition of identity: the distinguishing character or personality of an individual 

You are truly unique, so the impact you have on those around you is unique. You have the power to control and moderate your specific set of thoughts, ideas, personality traits, and strengths in order to bring about the outcomes you desire. To do so, you must get clarity on what your uniqueness is composed of, and how you can project those attributes for maximum impact.

One of my clients (I’ll call her Julie) is an extremely persuasive speaker. She runs a mid-sized marketing organization, and with her charisma, she has built a strong client base and recruited a number of devoted employees. She is, however, less effective at tracking detail and performing basic planning tasks.

Given this profile, what do you think the typical outcome of her leadership will be? If you imagine something like “New clients and employees will be charmed by her at the outset, then suffer a series of disappointments for failed delivery on promises or expectations due to bad planning,” you’d be right.

Julie’s greatest strength is to cast a compelling vision that excites customers and employees. But she still has a business to run, with all the requisite details and planning. So how can she leverage her strength as a visionary while also managing successful day-to-day operations?

By working to truly understand her values, Julie gained clarity on what she prizes most: creating new and beautiful concepts. This was her desired impact as a leader.

Once Julie understood what impact she desired, the next step was to evaluate how her strengths and weaknesses were impacting others. This evaluation enabled her to identify small adjustments she could make to achieve her goals.

What did Julie do?

  • She recruited people with passion about planning so she could focus on creating compelling visions of the future.
  • She kept her planners and operations people focused, letting them exercise their passion for keeping the business on track.
  • She carefully chose how to interact with clients so that their expectations could be managed and fulfilled. She brought an operations manager with her to key meetings to handle real-time planning in discussions. Clients were even more excited by Julie’s vision because the ops manager could show them how that vision would be implemented.

We can all learn from Julie’s journey. Who you are is how you lead, so take the time to learn who you are and who you want to be. Make intentional decisions to behave in ways that align to the ends you desire. Even minor but intentional shifts in words and actions can make a big difference. Remember that you are unique and changing. Continue the work of reflection and clarity throughout your career, and you will achieve your own vision of who you can be as a leader.


About the Author

Bill Harrison is an Executive Consultant at PeopleFirm.  His first love is working with leaders and teams to move them to higher states of productivity and engagement. A former lawyer with experience as a mediator for the Chicago Center for Alternative Dispute Resolution, he has dedicated his life to finding ways to help people put their energy into collaborating towards mutually beneficial outcomes. A certified leadership coach with proven effectiveness working with difficult team dynamics, he’s spent over 25 years working with unlocking people’s potential in companies such as bioscience, technology start-ups, Fortune 500 and small family-owned businesses. He is a sought-after team development facilitator, particularly for teams who are undergoing difficult changes and restructuring efforts.