3 Ways We Limit Our Leadership

My mother-in-law used to say, “I’d rather be a character than have no character.”

Character is at the center of leadership. A person's character, good or bad, can inspire others to greatness or discourage them from trying. Great things can be accomplished when the character of the leader is up to the task at hand.

Is your character up to your next challenge? It may not be. Have you hit a wall? Are you ready to tackle a bigger mission or step into a new relationship, only to find that who you’ve known yourself to be seems to be holding you back? Keeping you in a box that feels too small? Sabotaging relationships? Limiting possibilities?

You aren’t alone. Our character is a combination of personality, temperament and mentality, developed and reinforced over time until it becomes “who you are,” at the basis of how you think about yourself and ultimately how you are known.

But, to grow into the fullness of your potential, to be true to yourself today rather than repeating who you were in the past, you need to evolve.

Today, while walking my dog, I listened to Oprah’s Super Soul Conversations. Shaka Senghor spoke about the promise he made to himself while in solitary confinement that transformed his life, “I will live my life moving forward to honor my son. In order to do that I had to strip down everything I’d accepted in my identity. When you grow up on the streets you are a thug, so you adopt that swagger…when you are in the prison yard, you are the yard boss. All these different masks I wore and none of them would allow me to be the father and the man I was capable of being.”

How does your character limit your success? In my past three decades of leadership coaching, I’ve discovered many survival tactics that keep us stuck. Here are 3 that hold us back and 2 strategies for altering your character to match your current commitments.

Leaders at all levels helped me see that our character, who we know ourselves to be, comes into being from conclusions we reach early in life. Our character is a blend of little choices we made when we said yes or no to emphasize or diminish certain traits. This process continues until we think this is who we are. The problem is, we forget we are the ones who took on and constructed this character.

How would you capture the essence of your character? Eccentric? Individualist? Steady with grit? Reckless? Strong willed? Activist? High achiever? Often, we assume that our character is a given, just the way we are, forgetting that our character can be re-defined and shaped throughout our lives.

When our character stops us from living the life we want to live, it’s time to change. The problem is that our character takes on a life of it’s own, fighting to survive. It becomes tenacious, self-protected, full of reasons, barriers and justifications just when we need to grow in new directions.

In times of change, our old character persists. I remember when my dad retired from managing the 1200 employees of the St Francis Hotel in San Francisco and continued using his boss tone at home. Needless to say, my mom prompted a change, but it wasn’t easy for him to step out of his highly successful leadership personality.

We struggle to step out of old roles when our internal character says “too risky.” In 2002, a last-minute invitation to speak to a larger audience stretched my sense of what I could or couldn’t do. On the plane ride to NYC I worked hard to confront and expand my sense of who I knew myself to be. Luckily, I was 36,000 feet in the air or there were moments I might have backed out.

Is your character holding you back? Remember, the character’s priority is to survive by staying with what is known, and backing away from the unknown, at any cost. I’ve seen these characters get sneaky, real tricky. Without being obvious, the character comes up with all kinds of cunning moves to keep us in the box of our past identity.

  • The Shiny Object move - Your attention is suddenly distracted by an email, a text, a bird flying by the window, a rumble in your stomach. The list is endless. Maybe a day or ten years later you’ll realize you let that opportunity slip by.

  • The “I’m not Good Enough” move - A repetitive refrain, one you’ve often known since childhood, turns on an endless loop inside your head and deflates your willingness to take a risk. “Never mind,” our character reassures us. “It’s ok.” and you settle once again into habitual routines.

  • The “Who do I Think I Am?” move - when we’ve really threatened our sense of who we are and who we can be, the character grabs us from behind and sits us right down so that we are not “too much.” “It’s not safe to be that big!” “Who do you think you are?” And we shrink away, because being too much seems really bad or wrong or even mean.

Tricky moves! The list is endless.

Bottom line? The character is in self-protection mode, locking down, pulling out the big maneuvers to stay inside the circle of familiar, because in the past this is how we stayed safe. As my 15-year-old daughter said when a big football player invited her to a night club and I said “No!” - “But, I’m not that young anymore!”

You aren’t who you were in the past either. For the past 5 or 10 or even 45 years you might have let this character hold you back, as if the same rules apply. Turn on the compassion. You did the best you could.

This is a new day. As Marshall Goldsmith said, “What got you here won’t get you there.” You’re ready to play a new game, at a new level, and produce new results.

These are two proven ways you can use to alter your character and emerge into a new you –

1.     Choose where you focus, what you reinforce. Other variations of this character also live inside you, or you wouldn’t have gotten this far. Put your attention on the part of you that possesses skills, experiences, attitudes and perspectives and IS up to this game.

2.     Make different choices. Alter your behavior in meaningful and lasting ways by emphasizing traits, practicing behaviors, setting up new thought patterns that are in line with the future you want to create. How you dress, walk and talk signals you are moving into a new you.

Over time, you will redefine who you know yourself to be. On that plane to NYC, I saw the rabbit hole of despair sucking me down. Both of these strategies worked for me. I pulled out my yellow pad and listed all the reasons I love speaking, the audiences who loved my talks, my passion for this audience, and my commitment to creating a future that works for everyone. I read and re-read that list, adding more, until I stepped into the other reality of who I am, who I know myself to be. My certitude and commitment carried me through. And, I made the difference I wanted to make in that talk.

Strong character arises from clear values, commitment and care. A leader with a character that continues to evolve enjoys the respect of their teams and even their competitors. They are trusted to make smart decisions, as they confidently consider the interests of a wide range of stakeholders.

As engrained as those old versions of ourselves feel, we do choose what we reinforce. What’s your wise choice today? Who are you really? Reinforcing the attributes of your best self creates the circumstances and conditions for a thriving life and purposeful work.