Leadership Can’t Happen Until YOU Know Who You Are

Would you recognize your authentic self if you saw him or her? How would you know it is the real you? What is an “authentic self” and why in the world does it matter to your ability to lead?

One of the greatest weaknesses, and almost without question at the root of all inglorious downfalls of well-known leaders, is the discomfort they have with who they truly are. Each person is born with a beautifully unique set of talents, skills and abilities and in our early childhood we bring them into the world unfettered. Yet early in our childhood we begin receiving messages, primarily from our caregivers, that reflect back what they think and feel about who we are. From those early impressions we make decisions about who it is safe to be and what we need to hide. Regardless of a child growing up in an “idyllic” setting or a very challenging one, everyone has to navigate these landmines as children.

Is the authentic self what we do, or is it who we are? In today’s society most people define themselves by what they do rather than by who they are—what approach are you taking?

This question actually is the fundamental one successful leaders have asked themselves over and over again. Learning who you are is an ongoing process that opens the doorway to being a leader in your personal life and in your work in the world. Starting this process begins by looking at your unique gifts and talents, what is special about you, and about what are you passionate? And by starting on this path of inquiry, often it will bring up just the opposite, doubts about your abilities, uncertainty about what really is important to you and questions about what you really want to accomplish. Although it is challenging, it is the place to start because only through honest communication and full self-disclosure can you get to the core of your authentic self.

Leaders who never take this step or don’t continue to do so, end up anchoring their actions in who other people tell them they are, which is ultimately a recipe for disaster. Nowhere is this truer than in political circles. Elected officials often begin their careers genuinely interested in public service and as they rise through the ranks their notoriety, popularity and power grow creating an ever-changing canvas of how they view themselves. As the people around them start to view them through the lens of power and fame, elected officials often find themselves caught between the person they think they are, which is often insecure, unintelligent and unloved and the person they are in public, which is often the opposite, so that both visions are of themselves are inaccurate.

This is why it is so important to develop a clear picture of your authentic self and to keep that mirror of self-reflection as clean as possible. From the earliest decisions each person makes to survive childhood, everyone can benefit by evaluating if those choices to see if they are still useful or if they are standing in the way of fully expressing your power and being the leader in your life that you really are. For example, a child who felt the only way to win his parents’ approval was to succeed learns to achieve in every arena. This insatiable drive to win often compels many political leaders into high office. But if the motivation for that drive is rooted in childhood angst, it invariably leads to reckless behavior. By understanding that achieving once had its role in childhood family dynamics one can see that that motivation no longer serves as well in adulthood. By shifting the focus of achievement for its own sake and as a way to win love to a healthier focus on achieving for the sake of bettering one’s community the desperation evaporates and the true humanitarian can come forward. (For a real life example, reflect on President’s Clinton’s rise to office, his stumble and his second act in his post-presidency.)

By identifying the decisions that defined how you coped with your childhood, one often finds the seeds of current issues as those mechanisms have probably outlived their usefulness. Now you can make a choice for yourself about the direction you want to take in your life. By rooting into the authentic self, people begin to see the difference between what he or she has made up and what is real. Then, and only then, one has a clean slate to move toward self-empowerment and expanded and effective leadership.

No one can take this journey for you. And for the sake of citizens and political leaders alike, it is time for everyone dust off and take a fresh look in the mirror.

This blog was co-authored by Kathleen Schafer . . . and by Leadership Connection’s new Principal Susan Henkels. Susan has a 30-plus year career assisting leaders in developing healthy relationships in their home, their workplace and their life.

Leave a Comment


Leave a Reply

David Dejewski

Bravo! Sun Tzu would be proud of what’s written here. He would say knowing yourself is half of any battle. I would add this is true in everything from combat to dating.
Self discovery is a life-long commitment. The closer we get to the truth, the more effective we are as leaders and as peoe in general. Well written.

Susan Schneider

Thank you for the reminder about being as authentic as possible (it’s not easy, but it’s worth it). Strengthsfinder gave me a look in the mirror, and gave me the final push to leave a job that wasn’t a match for me. Now I do organizational development work and facilitate a workshop based on Strengthsfinder.


Lloyd R. James

When I was young (15yrs) I made a decision not to believe in money. Not to put money before people. I grow to learn to separate people from their money/Job title/power and to see the real person. With that knowledge neither money nor job title nor power; influence my decision making process; only the person character. As an adult I have modified my early childhood decision to accommodate my adult responsibilities. Very good!

Julian Scadden

I thoroughly enjoy this discussion. Once we are self aware our boundaries are not defined but actually limitless. To build on or reinforce this I am reminded of Marcus Buckingham who speaks to “Building your strengths” in place of developing your weaknesses. Knowing yourself opens the world to be truly tasted and fully experienced. What an enlightening way to start the day – thank you!

David Dejewski

Robert – value, I believe, is in the perspective. I agree that any “must” statements are relative – usually to whomever is writing them. But reading them, to me, is like listening to a tribe of blind guys standing around the proverbial elephant describing what they feel. Each one is clear about the piece in front of them, but they are not necessarily aware of the other perspectives. One feels a trunk, the other a leg, a third the tail and so on.
As one who has practiced leadership in business, the military, on the streets, and in the Boy Scouts, I can attest to the many splendored beauty that is the leadership craft. It changes with time, circumstances, and the people involved (both leaders and those being lead). Maybe that’s the point.
I search for common denominators. Knowing ourselves, I believe, is common to all forms of leadership. It’s been documented for thousands of years – literally, and it’s proven true in my life in practice. When I see it again and again and understand the value that knowing myself brings to any leadership situation, I tell myself that this is something I must do. I would advise anyone pursuing the leadership craft to do the same.
I wouldn’t necessarily advise every student of leadership to pursue more genre-specific skills like building concensus. That usually works well in the office, but not when time is of the essence (as when bullets are flying or someone’s life is on the line).
An excellent comment, Robert. Thanks for throwing some light on this!