The Problem and Opportunity of Identity in Leadership Development and Coaching

What I can do depends on who I have decided I am. What we can do depends on who we believe ourselves to be.

The challenge for many people working in the field of leadership development and coaching is that we only have tools to address what people do– not who they are. Ultimately, this is a problem of identity. Who am I? Who are we? While some more superficial methodologies tend to skirt around this thorny issue, hiding behind competency frameworks and assessment tools, the ontological approach to development offers the opportunity to go to the very heart of the matter.

Why so? Because whether a person is open for development will depend on their notion of their identity; who they have decided they are, or are not, in the present and, crucially, who they can or cannot be in the future.

This critical question is a thorny one. It is being grappled with at a macro-level right now, as citizens of various nationalities argue about immigration and ‘nationalism’; but it is only the same question played out on a larger scale. “What does it mean to be British, American or Singaporean”? etc. raises the same fundamental issues as “what does it mean to be me”? Teams, companies and countries are then ultimately a combination of these systems. When there is alignment regarding ‘what it is required/acceptable within the system’ it becomes a culture. This is a dynamic issue and is the cause of much of today’s social unrest as people within the system have differing perceptions of what is negotiable and what is not.

For example, the notion of what it means to be “British” is different today than it was 100 years ago.

For an individual, the answers to these kinds of questions are generally held at an unconscious level – much like a computer’s operating system running in the background. However, just as with that invisible operating system whirring away unseen, these invisible answers determine what is possible and what is not. Most importantly, they set self-defined limits on a person’s development potential. “Where can I develop and still be me?” becomes the new question.

An ontologically trained practitioner, one who is familiar with working with “who a person is” as well as “what they do”, will work with the client in various domains. It is no longer just a matter of what a person thinksthey can or cannot do, but also theemotionaland physicalrange they see as available to them.  How are they willing to beor not be? Which emotions and movements are acceptable for them to experience and exhibit and which are not?

Other development approaches tend to work almost exclusively in the domain of rationality and logic but questions regarding identity are not usually susceptible to factual investigation. The idea of identity is held not only in the mental domain, but also in the domains of emotion and physicality.

The ontological process of coaching and leadership development is therefore a challenging one for manager, facilitator, coach and client. The manager, facilitator or coach must be able to work across physical, emotional and mental domains and possess a capacity to create an environment that is both safe enough for exploration while still challenging enough to provoke action. Crucially, the ontological practitioner must remember that they themselves are a part of the process, rather than some kind of objective observer, looking in from the outside.

The client in an ontological process must be open to self-discovery and to uncovering their self-imposed limits that have become buried over time. Once these limits are made visible, the possibility of genuine transformation emerges and, along with it, the prospect of genuinely sustainable change and a whole new level of results.Ultimately, you can only extend a boundary you know you have.

One of the reasons this notion of identity becomes ‘sticky’ for us as adult human beings is that we can begin to see our identity as fixed and determined by assertions. This trap occurs because it begins with assertions: eg I am a man. I am British. I have 3 siblings. I was born in 1967.

As assertions, these are either true or false, (in my case, these are all true) they are historical in nature (they existed before I stated them) and they tell you about me, the person being described. Therefore, it is easy to see these as defining of my identity, in the past, present and future. However, that is the trap.

It is not the assertions that generate our identity (although they play a part), rather it is the assessments that we linkto our assertions that produce the real boundaries to our identity.

Eg: I am a man therefore I can … cannot … should … should not … I am British therefore I can … cannot … should … should not …

These assessments are never true or false, but because I have held many of these for a long time, the trap is to begin to confuse them with assertions and then treat them as true. As you discovered in your Newfield Asia program, these assessments are also highly generative of the future, which in turn provides you with more evidence that they really are true.

Eg: I am a British man … therefore I am a person who … is not comfortable expressing emotion.

It is easy for me to find supportive evidence for this assessment – from my history, from my wife, from my father, brothers and the culture I grew in which I grew up (“the stiff upper lip”)

Then, because of this, I deny my ability to express sadness. It is not because I do not possess that ability, it is because I have not practiced experiencing it, and so it feels uncomfortable to feel it; because it feels uncomfortable, I then say to myself and others: “that’s just not who I am” and inevitably that becomes part of my identity: “I’m not emotional” and it lives for me like an assertion.

I can go to as many training programs as I want, but I will never shift that assessment for as long as I see it as an assertion that forms a part of my very identity. In my experience working with people, there are different layers of assessments in the realm of identity:

Of course, it is the inner circle that proves the most resistant to change and development. Working with a client to explore what they put in which circle can be very powerful and revealing. One of the common results of such an exploration is that the client sees that there are relatively few assessments that live in there.

Not only this but if you explore this with clients over the arc of their life (eg teenager, in their 30’s, single, as a parent etc) this can open up the idea that identity is not a fixed concept, rather it is something that is constantly alive and fluid. (Eg: I was comfortable with sadness as a child and anger as a teenager) It is when we attempt to stop this evolutionary process and attempt to cling onto an identity from our past, that we begin to ossify, decay and lose connection with the present moment and all that it means to really be alive.

Of course, Bob Dylan put it best: “He not busy being born, is busy dying”.

Now, to see that something can be changed does not imply that it should be changed, of course. However, being willing to consider identity in this way does open up the possibility of development in areas that are otherwise seen as off-limits or impossible.

As indicated in the title of this article, the question of identity is not necessarily problematic, indeed it also offers a huge opportunity. Once you see that identity is malleable in this way, you can use the mind’s propensity to confuse assessments and assertions to create and sustain powerful new assessments that can exist at the level of the inner circle in our diagram. However, in order to drive them down through the other circles, you not only need to be rigorous in creating evidence that the assessment really is “true” about you but you also need to be very clear as to the benefit of holding this new assessment.

If we return to our earlier example and shift it: I am a British man … therefore I am a person who … is comfortable expressing emotion

This statement is the opposite of the earlier one and, as such, is no more true or false than its predecessor (it is still an assessment).

However, if I am willing to suffer the inevitable initial discomfort of ‘expressing emotion’ and consciously notice that I am doing/being it, then I can begin to produce evidence to support this new assessment. The two elements that support this process are confidence that I can do it (an assessment that only comes from repeatedly doing it) and an assessment that I am more likely to achieve the vision that I have for my life if I hold this new assessment. For example, will it help me to produce the kind of relationships I desire?

Once you can drive this new assessment down to the level of the inner circle, then it becomes as “sticky” as the old assessment.

If you are working with someone in this area, then it is important to have them realise that the old assessment will not disappear. This is important to stress because:

Some clients feel disappointed or cheated when they realise this and so it is important not to over-promise.

Other clients feel their very identity is threatened if they are going to have such old assessments surgically excised somehow.

Being clear with clients that their new assessment can live perfectly happily alongside their old one is an important step in the process. Not only can they live happily alongside each other, but it is important they do, as it this ability to live with paradox that provides the range and fluidity of identity that is important if you want to remain alive in the present moment, rather than trapped by your past.

Eg: I am a British man … therefore I am a person who … is not comfortable expressing emotion and I am a British man … therefore I am a person who … is comfortable expressing emotion

are paradoxical assessments that can live together and both can prove useful as the client moves forward in their life. In this way the client’s view of their identity does not pressure them with an expectation to always be comfortable when they express emotion or to never be comfortable when they express emotion. Both experiences are possible within the concept of their identity / who they have decided they are.

In this way, the two assessments can merge into one: I am a British man … therefore I am a person who can experience both comfort and discomfort when I express emotion.

What is particularly fascinating about identity and “who I have decided I am / can be” is that despite all our concern with it as human beings, there is a very real sense in which it can be said to exist most meaningfully in the experience and assessments of the people around us. What I think of as my identity may (or may not) be very different from the assessment of my boss, or my spouse or my children. This is where the willingness for your client to work not only with you, but also the people around them in their life proves especially powerful. The willingness to receive feedback and to work through the concentric circles exercise with other people adds a whole new dimension and richness to the process.

Seeing the concept of identity in such a fluid way is fundamental to the OAR / BEL models that underpin the ontological coaching/leadership development approach that we teach in Newfield Asia. As ontological practitioners, we are not trying to produce a client who is a “better” observer with an “improved” identity but we are working to have the client seetheir own observer and the possibilities that exist to expand it, should they choose to do so.

This can be both a liberating and frightening journey for the client to undertake and as such, requires not only great sensitivity and compassion on behalf of us as practitioners, but also a willingness to challenge our concept of our own identities in the process, something that makes this whole approach such an enriching and growth-ful experience for everyone concerned.


Marcus Marsden

Managing Partner: Newfield Asia, Newontology, TWP.

Similar Posts