Where do you find your identity as a leader? This is big question.
Does your identity come from what you do? Does it come from the title you possess? Does it come from the position you occupy? Does it come from your relationships? Does it come from present or past accomplishments? Does it come from the reputation of the program or institution you lead? And the list of questions could go on.
Finding a Firm Foundation
One of the books I enjoy coming back to on the topic of leadership is a short book by Henri Nouwen. Entitled In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership, Nouwen provides his take on where identity is wisely grounded. This work provides perspective for those aiming to lead from a place of Christian conviction. Nouwen writes:
“leadership must be rooted in the permanent, intimate relationship with the incarnate Word, Jesus, and they need to find there the source for their words, advice, and guidance…. Dealing with burning issues without being rooted in a deep personal relationship with God easily leads to divisiveness because, before we know it, our sense of self is caught up in our opinion about a given subject.” (emphasis mine).
When Identity is Too Closely Aligned with our Opinions, Plans, and Performance
This final phrase in the Nouwen quote provides a significant warning for leaders. While it is important to have passion and conviction behind our ideas and opinions, there is also a danger when our “sense of self is caught up in our opinion about a given subject.” When this happens, we become quite difficult for others to work with. When this happens, a critique of our ideas quickly gets translated as a critique of us personally. When this happens, it becomes very difficult to receive insight and perspective from others.
A Positive Alternative for Identity
At this point in Nouwen’s comments, he continues on with a healthy alternative. Rather than having our identities defined by our opinions, or programs, or initiatives, Nouwen calls us to look to God as the most stable source of all to find our grounding and identity. He writes:
“But when we are securely rooted in personal intimacy with the source of life, it will be possible to remain flexible without being relativistic, convinced without being rigid, willing to confront without being offensive, gentle and forgiving without being soft, and true witness without being manipulative.”
A Community Securely Rooted
These are the type of people with whom I want to work. This is the type of person I want to be. I desire to engage in rigorous discussion of unique perspectives and not have questions of my ideas viewed as personal attacks. When we are a people “securely rooted in personal intimacy with the source of life,” rich and deep community flourishes in such contexts. Having my identity rooted in this place helps me to serve others without overly personalizing my or their opinions and agendas in the process.