Leaders, Hold Your Labels Lightly

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Someone asks, “Who are you?”

You respond, “I am….”

How do you end that sentence? 

It’s likely you list characteristics of your personality or the work you do. These descriptions help other people understand you. They can also be labels used for summing up your work. In some cases, they are used to judge who you are and how you show up in the world. While this is true for everyone, it’s important for those in leadership roles to strike the right balance. Remember, your impact extends beyond your view.

Professionally, you may have participated in assessments intended to tell you about your personality, your strengths, or your values. With a 360 survey, you see what you said about yourself, and also what others have to say about you. I know this because I’m one of the people who administer and debrief assessments like this.

I’m also the person in those same conversations encouraging you to hold those labels lightly. That may seem strange coming from a coach who primarily works with those she describes as Introverted Skeptics. I use this label for the same reason we use most labels – to give us a simple way to talk about something complex. Introversion and skepticism interact in particular ways that are important to understand. HOWEVER, I want my clients – and readers – to see themselves as more than any single description or list of characteristics.

You are more than your labels – so hold them lightly.

What happens if you identify too strongly with those labels? Well, a couple things come to mind…

Assessment Trap

It should not be surprising that completing a survey about how you see yourself results in a report that tells you, well, how you see yourself. But this effort to look closely often reveals a bigger picture. It is so exciting to talk with someone who says, “This part sounds like me, but this other part doesn’t make sense to me at all!” Hello insights!

Assessments are incredibly valuable – when used for purposes of good. Please, though, do not let a report tell you where you are broken or give reason to judge who you are. You don’t need to be fixed. You are complete as you are. 

The opportunity with assessments is to better understand who you are, how you interact with others, and prioritize what is important to you. The discussion is about gaining perspective and deepening relationships. In this context, holding your labels lightly means there isn’t a right or wrong way of being. It means accepting who you are – much more than a label – and doing the same for others.

Matrix Trap

As I mentioned above, we need labels to simplify a situation so it can be explained and discussed. The complexity of a human being is difficult to articulate. Therefore, we create a shorthand to describe our personalities, characteristics, and how we work.

The cost, however, is an incomplete and skewed version of self. Maintaining a rigid hold on these descriptions is like reducing the Earth to a tiny dot in space. It’s accurate, but it’s a microcosm.

And a microcosm doesn’t account for variations, subtleties, or circumstances outside the norm. The oversimplified label doesn’t represent the whole of who you are. For example, those Introverted Skeptics I love to coach? They all have amazing strengths, perspectives, and challenges that are not captured in that simple phrase. Creating that name allows us to explore those attributes – but not losing sight of the unique human, the individual, they are. It’s important to tap into the whole. Identifying two characteristics as key points is only the start of the journey of discovery.

The ‘I AM’ Trap

Labels are also used as an excuse. Having strong critical thinking skills does not mean that your thought process is always correct. Being an introvert does not give you permission to sit quietly in the room wondering if the extrovert is ever going to shut up. No, I realize that one does not always create the other. In fact, my point is that it really never should. 

Tucking yourself into the comfort of self-labels limits your ability to lean out of your comfort zone. Love your critical-thinking self? Explore what you would have to believe or do to accept another person’s point of view. An introvert? Challenge yourself to engage more a certain number of times per month – maybe one more than today. 

Simply having a strength, weakness, or specific tendency does not mean it’s impossible to operate any other way. Get the benefits of assessments to learn more about yourself. Understand the key aspects of who you are so you can introduce yourself easily to others. But recognize that you are more than those labels and you benefit when you stretch beyond that comfort zone – and lead in an even more powerful way.

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