Who Do You Want Your People To Be?

We, as leaders, spend an inordinate amount of time instructing our people on how we want them to behave - using codes of conduct and workplace instructions, on what we want them to do - in terms of processes and with training modules and of course, what we want them to achieve - by outlining their KPIs and conducting yearly, biannual or quarterly reviews depending on just how controlling our own personality tends to be.

What we spend very little time on, is who we want our people to be.

And yet, this is the question that characterizes the greatest leaders in almost every field throughout history. Great leaders don't just tell people what to do and then micromanage them to within an inch of their lives, they create a compelling identity that their people live in to that is self-sustaining, life affirming and contagious.
Certainly, the greatest leaders in my professional and personal life have inspired a sense of who I could be, more than simply setting out a list of instructions.

So why does this sense of identity matter so much for a leader?

Our identity, who we think we are, sits at the root of all human action and behavior. It determines what we buy, what we buy in to, who we follow and what we believe. And when we feel like our identity is being challenged in some way, be that contradicting our values or an expectation that doesn't ring true or as congruent with our previous definition of ourselves, we don't simply ignore it, we fight it.

All conflict arrises not out of rational reasoning or even our emotional state, it stems from a breach of our identity.

The most successful change management programs, such as Alcoholics Anonymous, actually install a new identity rather than simply offering a reasoned argument or adding new behaviors. This new identity is incredibly important and why they work so hard to get you to admit to being an alcoholic. Having a drinking problem means you "shouldn't" drink, but being an alcoholic means "you can never" drink. There is a far greater level of commitment involved.

It's also much easier to say reduce your red meat consumption by becoming a vegetarian rather than by simply cutting back. The identity based strategy requires you simply to act in accordance with your identity (in other words, be who you are), the other carries with it a sense of sacrifice and requires discipline - a somewhat harder benchmark. In fact, this is the most critical reason why most diets fail.

Perhaps the most important part of an Identity Driven™ Leadership strategy is that it is internalized. Nordstrom employees don't have to memorize sales scripts or practice fake smiles and forced enthusiasm. Their internal training program turns them in to "Nordies" - an identity that has built in to it the concept of customer service that goes beyond the expected, beyond even what seems reasonable!

So how do leaders create an identity that is compelling and captivating?

Obviously identity is made up of a variety of complex and interconnected features, strategies and tools. In fact, much of our time at The Impossible Institute is spent conducting audits of organizational culture and building identities that are more collaborative, innovative and productive, rather than simply demanding it or investing in yet another unsupported process that staff, frankly, abhor!

That said, perhaps the first step is in fact a very human process - and that is to use strategic stories. Almost every culture on the planet is in fact a product of it's stories. Stories are portable, re-tellable, tweetable, they can be personalized, told in the first or second person and they are far more memorable than any process or script can ever be.

I recently shared the stage at an innovation conference with Ralph Norris, the former CEO of The Commonwealth Bank and of Air New Zealand and Ralph told a story of his time at the helm of Air NZ.

He related how he had once been on a flight, seated of course in business class, and that the crew were one cabin member short. Rather than staying in his seat in front of the curtain, he moved to the rear of the plane and offered to help out in the galley.

Now, a lot of leaders say, "I'm prepared to roll up my sleeves", still others encourage you to never say things like, "It's not my job". What Ralph understood, however, is how stories have the power to transform a culture, to drive a new identity through an organization.

So instead of dealing with organizational dramas and staff problems by issuing orders and emailing instructions, consider the power of strategic stories that your staff can see themselves in.

Ask, "who do I want my people TO BE?"

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Who Do You Want Your People To Be?

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