And I’m not talking about your clothes. Though the leadership label trap is something we often end up paying far too much for the privilege of falling for. I’m talking about the single biggest trigger for staying stuck, dreaming big but playing small.
There’s modern epidemic in the business leadership world is our addiction to labelling ourselves. And when I talk about leadership, I’m not restricting my definition to those with ‘CEO’ on their business card. I strongly believe that everyone who inspires others to work with them to create a common vision is, in their own way, a leader. This applies whether you’re the CEO of a multinational company or just starting out on your career. We all need to show leadership in some way.
Thousands of books have been published on leadership, with models and archetypes and personality profiling, all to help us to lead, but there’s a flaw I see in the approaches in so many of these:
Most of them are about what we need to do, to lead.
As we covered in the iceberg model, that’s just the surface-level symptom. Making changes at the behavioural level doesn’t shift our beliefs or values or sense of identity.
If what we’re doing is out of kilter with who we see ourselves as being, then we create inner conflict, self-doubt and eventually Imposter Syndrome. And those labels can make this worse.
These are tools you can use once you have cleared out the blocks, fears and secret-self-sabotage patterns. When you line up that version of you with surface-level strategies, you can create breakthroughs.
What tends to happen, instead, is that those models and archetypes and profiling systems is that they give us permission to live inside new comfort zones. The labels we are given become the new boxes within which we limit our behaviours. I have lost count of the number of times someone has excitedly talked about the results they got on some leadership or team-building profiling test, proudly announcing “I am an [insert catchy profiling name here]!”
A personality test can only tell you about your behaviour. It can’t tell you who you really are. Yet we allow them to change how we see ourselves.
Whilst such tests can help us to become aware of some of the seemingly random things we do (we all love a good personality quiz!), at a deeply subconscious level many of us then fall into the trap of morphing our sense of who we are to overlay the profiled category. Say someone is told they’re an instigator, for example, they will start to show more behaviour that matches that label.
But other behaviours they previously had that might have been useful fall away, because they don’t match the label, so they might become less collaborative, whereas that was previously one of their strengths. You hear them proudly announcing things they won’t do any more – “Oh, I’m not going to the planning meeting this week, because I am an Instigator! You need Joe – he was an Implementer.” And Joe stops speaking up about his brilliant ideas because Fred is the Instigator, so that’s his realm.
The label has changed how they see themselves, so their beliefs, thoughts and actions line up to match.
Labels become the limits on our leadership.
They are like masks behind which we get to feel safe. They risk becoming switches that flick on the traits that are permitted by that label and that flick off those that aren’t.
In the entrepreneurial world, I meet many business owners who have had their Myers-Briggs profile done. Often, one of the first things they will say to you is, “I’m an ENTJ!” I have even seen some printing the on their business cards. They have their one-of-sixteen-boxes label and they subconsciously conform to it, not realising that each of these categorisations is, in fact, a context-dependent sliding scale. Humans are infinitely more complex than a model that had to be simplified in order to teach it and test it.
You see them switching off their intuition because the ‘J’ for ‘judging’ means they are supposed to be evidence-based in their decision-making. And they obey.
As we set about conforming to the label we were given, we forget that these models are based on external behaviours, but our behaviours are surface-level actions – symptoms and effects – not the causal level of who we really are.
In addition, our behaviours change, depending on what we’re trying to do. Different environments and different roles, we have different behavioural habits. To use the Myers-Briggs ‘J’ as an example, in the context of making financial decisions of my business, there’s a major chunk of backing that decision with data, to support my intuition – a ‘J’. When it comes to choosing whether or not to trust someone, however, my intuition has by far the larger say – a ‘P’.
Someone might use lots of data for making a recommendation to a client on a major issue that is unfamiliar to them, but might act mainly on intuition for smaller problems that they have encountered before. So whether a person would get ‘J’ or ‘P’ in the test would depend on the contexts used in the questions.
It would be more accurate for someone to say, “I run an ENTJ preference in the context of leading my team in a corporate environment when we are working on positively-framed solutions to low-impact problems.”
But that’s not quite so catchy!
Whilst these profiling systems can be helpful in raising our awareness of our behavioural preferences, so we can choose whether or not we want to keep specific habits. We need to be careful not to let them influence our sense of who we really are, to become comfort zone boxes and limits on how we express ourselves. I’m not saying that these models are in anyway bad or flawed. But they can only assess our behaviours, not tell us who we are.Leadership profiles are intended to give us insights, not instructions. Are you falling into the label trap? Click To Tweet
And there’s another problem with this kind of profiling and label-creating: most of us are living life – exhibiting behaviours – that are an adapted version of who we really are. We have picked up strategies and ‘coping mechanisms’ from a very young age to handle what life throws at us. These commonly lead to us showing the world a partially shut-down and ‘safe’ version of who we really are. But all these models can test is that externally-visible behaviour. So the models aren’t able to be accurate. They can’t see to that deeper level. And the label you get given is the label that belongs to the constricted, adapted version of you; not the real you inside, because that can’t be questionnaired into a box.
These labels can keep us stuck in the habits we secretly wish we could ditch. And they become a badge of honour or even virtual armour.
“Oh, I hate networking, because I’m an introvert!”
Someone making this statement is much more likely to not enjoy a networking event because they will be telling themselves stories about how and why they hate them. This will shift their thoughts, emotions and physiology to make it harder for others to connect with them. And it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. But the person feels vindicated, because the results of some survey they did said they were an introvert and therefore would hate networking events and they have been proved right, because they just put up with two hours of chit-chat hell.
All three of the classic Inner Critic triggers are there in that statement. (More on that in step two of Ditching Imposter Syndrome).
It’s a generalisation – there’s no hint that hating networking events is something that only happens sometimes or is an experience over which they have any choice.
It’s a distortion because it is conflating a behaviour preference – running an introvert pattern – with their sense of identity.
It’s a deletion because they are filtering out all previous experiences of networking that didn’t fall into the ‘hate’ category and might even have been fun.
Yet this badge of honour that came from the label will limit how they behave, whether they enjoy themselves, how they filter the sensory perception of networking events, and how people experience meeting them. That label becomes a subconscious excuse to play it safe and to avoid connecting with others.
Great leadership doesn’t need models and archetypes and strategies and labels. It needs people with the vision and the passion to inspire others towards achieving results that could never be achieved by a single person – who have got out of their own way.
It’s time to let go of our labels and to frisbee those masks into the recycling bin.
Have You Been Falling For The Leadership Label Trap?
I’m curious: which of your labels might you choose to let go of today?
This article is from Clare’s book Ditching Imposter Syndrome: How To Finally Feel Good Enough And Become The Leader You Were Born To Be.
You can get your copy here.