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Surviving and thriving in the years ahead will require "triple-e" leaders and organizations: leaders and organizations that are simultaneously effective, ethical and engaging; none of these is possible without being clear about who we are. Much of the latest economic collapse seems due to financial institutions that operated more like casinos than banks and investment firms.

Many ethical and legal transgressions are functions of leaders and organizations that never really define their values or seem to forget what they are; sometimes leaders succumb to "shadow" aspects of their personalities that they are unaware of and organizations fall prey to "dark sides" of their cultures that they are blind to. Real engagement requires that all parties be clear about their passions, values and goals, and that those be aligned. We are drawn to authentic encounters and authentic leaders, and seek to be authentic ourselves; before we can be who we are, however, we need to know who we are.

I always liked the Hasidic parable about Rabbi Zusya, who on his deathbed shared his revelation that God would likely not ask him why he hadn't been more like Melech (his great brother), but instead why he hadn't been more like Rabbi Zusya.

Organizations and individuals alike who seek to master the identity challenge will benefit from:

  • Knowing their stories. What formative experiences or "moments of truth" contributed to who or what we are today? Who played significant roles shaping our values, choices and character (or culture?) How did we become the organization or person that we are today? As Karen Blixen, author of Out of Africa, said: "To be a person, you have to have a story to tell." Organizations also have stories that account for what they have become.

  • Know their character (or culture.) I agree with the famed Chicago journalist Sydney Harris, who stated that "ninety percent of the world's woes come from people not knowing themselves, their abilities, their frailties and even their real virtues." Organizations and individuals alike benefit by learning more about their strengths, "shadows," vulnerabilities, motivations, interests, blind spots and unique characteristics. Opportunities for expanding self-awareness include valid instruments and surveys, any kind of feedback (if we are paying attention,) coaching, trying new experiences and combinations of all of these.

  • Knowing their values. Without knowing our real values, we are a ship at sea without a compass - at a loss determining what port to steer for or what course adjustments to make. Alexander Hamilton was right: "Those who stand for nothing will fall for anything."

  • Knowing their aims. I use the word "aims" broadly here, to include the combination of what's typically described as purpose, mission, vision, goals, strategies, objectives and plans. As Jim Collins demonstrated in his Built To Last* research, an organization's core ideology - the combination of a meaningful purpose and its core values - is a potent combination. Collins found that organizations with unwavering core ideologies coupled with powerful adaptive mechanisms achieved returns that were nearly twelve times the returns of comparison companies. I think of aims as where want to be in the "future perfect tense" - what we promise or aspire to be and accomplish that's consistent with our values and who we are. As Seneca, the legendary Roman general counseled: "If we do not know what port to steer for, any wind is favorable."

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