Who Are You, Really?

Huffington Post

June 8, 2011

by Marshall Goldsmith

Most of us use our ideas of who we are to rationalize all kinds of behavior. What do I mean by this? Well, each of us has a bunch of behaviors that make up what we define as “me.” These behaviors are both positive and negative, and they make up who we think we are. Some of these behaviors are positive, like “I’m smart,” or “I work hard,” some are negative, like “I always drop things,” or “I’m always late.”

If we buy into our definitions of our behavior, which most of us do, we can excuse almost any annoying action we take by saying, “That’s just the way I am!” It’s when we let go of these limiting definitions that we can do our best work, be our best selves.

Years ago, I worked with a high-level executive who was seen by his people as lacking in the ability to provide recognition. When reviewing his feedback, he told me he didn’t want to appear phony by giving people recognition who didn’t deserve it. We spent quite a bit of time on this. He defended his poor scores on giving recognition by saying people didn’t always meet his high standards, that he didn’t like to hand out praise too often because it would cheapen the value of praise that was actually deserved, and he thought that singling out certain individuals might weaken the team.

What he didn’t do was recognize that there were lots of times when he should give positive recognition. I told him that no matter what rationalizations he came up with, that his real problem was his self-limiting definition of who he was — someone afraid to recognize others because then he wouldn’t really be being himself.

We delved a little deeper. I asked him, “Why can’t doing a great job of providing positive recognition be you? It’s not immoral, illegal, or unethical is it?”

“No,” he conceded.

“Will it make people feel better?”


“Will they perform better as a result of this well-deserved positive recognition?


“So please explain to me — why aren’t you doing it?”

He laughed and replied, “Because it wouldn’t be ME!”

In that moment, change became possible. He realized that he was not only hurting his employees and his company, but also himself. He understood that he could shed his “excessive need to be me” and not be a phony. He could stop thinking about himself and start behaving in a way that benefited others. He finally understood that giving recognition when deserved didn’t damage his reputation as a leader who had high expectations.

The payoff was enormous. Within a year his scores on giving recognition were in line with his other positive scores on leadership — all because he had lost his excessive “need to be me.”

The irony was not lost on him. He accepted the fact that the more he focused on his employees, the more they worked to benefit the company — and that benefited him.

Keep this in mind the next time you find yourself resisting change because you are clinging to a false — and/or probably pointless — notion of “me.”