Understanding the identity shift that comes with leadership by Steven D’Souza and Khuyen Bui

By Guest Contributor Steven D’Souza and Khuyen Bui

Authors of Not Being, by Steven D’Souza and Khuyen Bui, explain the identity shift that comes with leadership and how important it is.

“And where we had thought to find an abomination, we shall find a god; where we had thought to slay another, we shall slay ourselves; where we had thought to travel outward, we shall come to the center of our own existence; where we had thought to be alone, we shall be with all the world” – Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces

Another way people experience an identity shift is when they assume management or leadership responsibilities in the workplace. They are no longer an individual contributor, but now represent something bigger, enabling, facilitating and caring for others. This shift becomes even more significant when they move from leading a team to leading a function to leading an entire organization. This doesn’t simply involve a different style of leadership, but a transitional shift in how they view themselves and who they are for others.



When it comes to educating and leading teams, Lynne Sedgmore is a true maven. She gets to the heart of organizational ineffectiveness while nurturing and supporting the people she works with. A mother, grandmother and avid practitioner of meditation, Lynne has traveled a great deal through her leadership journey. She has been a base grade lecturer, a college principal responsible for 30,000 higher education students, and the CEO of the Center for Excellence in Leadership (CEL).

Throughout her career, Lynne worked hard and usually felt on top of things. She consistently overachieved, surpassing the targets she had been given, co-creating high-performance teams that generated work of the highest quality, regardless of ever-decreasing resources and government funding. Lynne savored every minute of the cut and thrust of her challenges and rose to meet them on every occasion. Nevertheless, she found the transition to the chief executive role at CEL was of another order entirely. The unstoppable force that Lynne was had finally met an immovable object.

This transition was directly tied to Lynne’s sense of leadership identity. She knew she had a lot of charisma and leadership skills — visioning, influencing, rallying, empowering people, making things happen. Yet, none of those skills seemed to help her in the new context in which she now found herself. As the former CEO of Girl Scouts of the USA, Frances Hesselbein, once observed:

Leadership is much less about what you do, and much more about who you are. If you view leadership as a bag of manipulative tricks or charismatic behaviors to advance your own personal interest, then people have every right to be cynical. But if your leadership flows first and foremost from inner character and integrity of ambition, then you can justly ask people to lend themselves to your organization and its mission.

Indeed, what made this transition particularly challenging for Lynne was that it was not about adding more to her bag of tricks, but rather the stripping away of what was no longer necessary and the discovery of inner character and identity she had not previously been aware of. But how do you discern what to hold on to and what to let go off while taking on challenging new responsibilities? Intuitively, Lynne knew that letting go of her previous way of leading was important, not just for her but for the success of CEL, too.

I had such close identification with my role as a college leader that to move out of a tight-knit local college into a distributed organization was a hugely disruptive experience, both internally and externally. I desperately missed the deep trust and loyalty that I shared with my previous staff and senior management team.

Lynne found that she had moved from an organizational envi- ronment characterized by unity and strong teamwork, with high levels of trust, delegation and performance, to a decentralized organization that was fragmented and disconnected. This required that she shift her leadership style from one founded on ‘mothering’ to one that entailed stewardship. Lynne would have to undergo a makeover of approach, intensity and, most fundamental of all, identity.

In the beginning, Lynne threw herself into this challenge with everything she had. Usually, such an undertaking would have energized her, but she quickly learned that that was not the case on this occasion. The more she focused on doing, the more she became exhausted and confused. It was as if everything she put in mysteriously disappeared into an organizational black hole.

Lynne sought support, in the shape of senior executive coach Simon Western, as she set aside time to explore and come to terms with the complex process of unraveling that she was experiencing, both as a leader and as a person.

In the coaching sessions, I began to feel how fearful, protective and defensive I was becoming. My emotional intelligence was low, my self-worth had hit rock bottom, and I had feelings of anger, guilt and blame.

Lynne’s inner struggle was a treacherous, maze-like path of self-inquiry, littered with misleading doorways and cul-de-sacs. When you are desperately stuck, any doorway carries the potential of being the gateway to heaven. But, the rush to pass through it can entrap you even further. As you flail around, struggling to get back on the ‘right’ path, you begin to assign blame, either to yourself or those who are meant to help you. You fall into the trap of activity and busyness, rushing to find and implement solutions to challenges, rather than pausing and reflecting.



The real task for Lynne was to set aside the notion of the leader as a heroic and charismatic figure, the one with a plan, a quick fix, who gets things done. In order to arrive at a solution, she would first have to work with and through the anxiety, confusion and Not Knowing she was experiencing. She could neither repress nor bulldoze her way out of it, but would have to stay within this discomforting state with courage and humility. To do otherwise would exacerbate the fragmentation and disconnection that was affecting CEL.

What made it especially painful for Lynne was that during this stressful time, it seemed like an all-or-nothing situation. For Lynne, despite her previous coaching and meditation experiences, ‘letting go’ felt like she would be permanently throwing away an essential part of her identity. Her work with Simon necessitated that, like surgeons, they go deep, removing blockages in this monumental, seemingly unified edifice known as a ‘self.’

The question was not only a practical one of how to find the best solution to CEL’s organizational and leadership problems, but also a deeply personal and metaphysical one about giving life to a new way of being. When it comes to our sense of self, the gap between what is no longer working and what is yet to emerge can seem too vast to fully comprehend.

I felt that I had moved from organizational unity and con- nectedness to fragmentation and disconnection, mirrored in my inner life by the final stages of a shift from a personalized sacred object to the non-conceptual and the void. Time seemed to disappear as the experience was so deep and visceral. My awareness kept expanding, I felt totally unified, within and without. The boundaries between myself and all around me dissolved and my whole being expanded into spa- ciousness. I felt fully awake and present, completely here now, without any preconceptions or expectations — just the truth of what is here. Everything I knew about leadership became a construct, an invention in my mind — as did everything I had ever known — all dissolving into a knowing that everything arises out of nothing, I have no self, there is only quietness, stillness, formlessness and emptiness at the core of everything, including me.

I felt liberated, still and peaceful. I also felt full of possibilities, a sense of pure unfolding, emerging out of the stillness — bigger, better and more powerful than anything my conscious mind could imagine. All need for control vanished within the overwhelming sense of trust, which transfused my whole body. I was unlimited and expansive with total acceptance of things as they are, being totally here now, non-attached to things. Everything, absolutely everything, was and would be well.

The inner confusion and Not Knowing that Lynne had initially thought of as obstacles to be overcome ultimately served as catalysts, helping to generate her shift in perspective, informing how she experienced who she was and could be as a leader. In that moment of encountering the void, she experienced a loss of all constructs, a total emptiness. Yet, at the same time, there was fullness, completeness, stillness and deep inner peace.

“While feeling liberated,” she reflected, “I was also concerned that if I let go into this sense of emptiness, I would not be able to continue in my professional work.” Lynne found herself at the threshold of identity transformation, in a liminal space, where her new identity was not yet knowable. She would need to learn how to adapt to this post-void experience.


STEVEN D’SOUZA is an executive educator, coach, and keynote speaker. He has authored or co-authored five books: Made in Britain, Brilliant Networking, Not Knowing, Not Doing and Not Being. Steven has been recognized by Thinkers50 on its RADAR list and was included in HR Magazine’s ‘Most Influential’ list. His work has been featured in national and international media, including Harvard Business Review, the BBC, The Independent, The Guardian, and The Sunday Times.

Website: www.stevendsouza.com 

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/steven-d-souza-5351712/


KHUYEN BUI is an author, speaker and sought-after facilitator who guides individuals and organizations to uncover the goodness that is already here. Graduated cum laude from Tufts University, where he studied Computer Science and Philosophy, he thrives on bringing analytical rigor into his inquiries of human messiness. Khuyen enjoys writing and storytelling and has won several awards, notably the Peter Drucker Challenge Essay Award and The Moth Boston StorySLAM Award. He can be contacted at www.khuyenbui.com.

Website: www.khuyenbui.com

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/buikhuyen/

Suggested Reading

For too long, we have bought into the myth of separation; the story that we each win or lose through the relentless purist of self-improvement, achieving personal and organizational goals and increasing consumerism. This has led us to being more lonely, exhausted, and disconnected than ever, with a devastating impact on our personal lives, families, communities, organizations, and the planet.

Not Being invites us to be curious about a different way of life, where we are interconnected, interdependent with each other and our environment; no longer fragmented but whole. It invites us to transition from a selfie culture to a selfless one that is radically inclusive of the other. We need to relinquish narrow ideas about who we are, to discover and embrace a wider identity. We are part of something much bigger than any of us.

More information




So many people today are struggling with the increasing pace of change and the constant and excessive busyness that comes with it. Many feel stretched, overwhelmed and exhausted, besieged by the demands of complex projects and workplaces. They are engaged in a kind of “doing” that is more effort and struggle, rather than a “doing” that comes from a place of presence, openness and aliveness. This is not only ineffective and unsustainable, but ultimately ends in stress, anxiety and burnout.

This book, by the authors of the award-winning Not Knowing (Best Management Book of the Year), explores the limits and dangers of “doing”; how do they play out in our lives and workplaces; what is driving, or contributing, to our excessive activity; and what would a different kind of “doing” look like, that is less about control and struggle and more about well-being, harmony and creativity.

More information




Knowledge and expertise are highly valued in today’s business world. These values are introduced at an early age by our education system, and at work, we are assessed based on what we know, on having the answers and solutions. Our need for certainty, to know what’s going on, to have all the answers, exerts strong pressure in our lives. This award-winning book offers an alternative, contrarian approach to dealing with such pressures – and to embrace “not knowing” rather than fearing it. The authors argue it is by “not knowing” that we in fact develop an exploratory mindset, and we discover, engage and create new ways to deal with business and management problems and issues. The book is supported by stories of individuals and the positive change they made in their lives through “not knowing”. Solving new problems with old ways of thinking are no longer useful in the new world.

More information