Self Identity and Leadership

“You’re just a bunch of molecules until you know who you are” – Cary Grant, circa 1952

I recently read two pieces that made me think about the importance of having a strong sense of self identity to be a good leader.  The HP Way, written by Jim Collins, stressed the importance of having strong company values.  The second article, How Will You Measure Your Life, written by Clayton Christensen, stressed the importance of having strong personal values.

In the last year I’ve taken the time to step back from my life and think about what is important to me.  I’ve made this a part of my daily routine: every day I work out, meditate, and reflect on what I value, what makes me happy, and what I want to accomplish.  The ritual was originally inspired by the Japanese concept of Kaizen, meaning small incremental daily improvement.

Doing this has given me tremendous clarity on who I want to be.  Over time I’ve been able to gain a much deeper understanding of what’s important to me and what I’m willing to do to get what I want in life.  It’s also given me an interesting perspective on the past, most notably the failure of my last company.

It’s hard to look back on a venture and specify exactly why it didn’t work out.  Companies can fail for two broad reasons – external factors (competition, market conditions, running out of money, etc) or internal factors (poor leadership, politics, lack of strong product strategy, etc).  Looking back at iLovePhotos, there were a lot of internal reasons why we failed.  I still feel like we missed a big opportunity to address a problem that remains unsolved.  Getting into detail about everything that went wrong isn’t something I’m ready to do yet (over a year after leaving the company I’m still processing everything I learned from the experience).  But a major factor was certainly poor leadership on my part.

Strong self identity is a funny thing.  It’s hard to recognize that it’s missing in your life because your mind does a very good job of compensating through insecurity.  It manifests itself by not listening to other people, thinking you know better, not making tough decisions, and being selfish, among other ways.  You would be hard pressed to find someone who admits that they don’t know what their values are.  But similarly, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who’s taken the time to clearly define their core value set.  If you haven’t clearly articulated your values, what does that say about the importance of your values?  How do you weigh important decisions in your life?  How do you weigh important decisions as a leader?

Being a good leader means being authentic.  And being authentic means knowing yourself.  If you are true to yourself, you can’t be false to other people.  Knowing who you are and being comfortable with yourself makes it much easier to listen to other people and, more importantly, really care for people and what’s important to them.

Your values serve as the seed of your company’s culture.  As a founder, what’s important to you is reflected in every decision you make, every person you hire, and every expectation you set.  Your company’s culture will in large part determine whether you succeed or fail.  As you build your company, a strong moral framework enables you to experiment with your business model without experimenting with your values.  That moral clarity fuels your team’s cohesion and gives everybody a sense of purpose when times are tough.

Start up life is often ambiguous.  It can be emotionally challenging for every person involved.  Somedays you wake up and see nothing but failure ahead.  Knowing who you are and what you want gives you a reason to wake up every morning and keep fighting.  When that kind of attitude becomes ingrained in your company’s culture, you know success is right around the corner.

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