On becoming an integrated leader

“What might integrated leadership look like for me?”


That’s what one of the people who joined our women’s leadership retreat recently explored with me. In middle school I was a nerd with braces and a perm. In my early twenties, I was a neuroscientist. In my late twenties, I was a middle school teacher. In my thirties and early forties, I led departments, schools and nonprofits. Each evening, when I went home, I was a mom.


Nerd. Neuroscientist. Teacher. Leader. Mom. Up until recently, each of these roles I’ve played has always been dissociated and walled off from the others. In addition to roles, there’s all the other identities we adopt throughout life. Are you a Democrat or Republican? Urban or rural? Privileged or underprivileged? Cis or trans? Introvert or extrovert? American or immigrant?


Often, much like belonging to an overbearing clique in high school, these roles and identities feel like forced, all-or-nothing choices. It’s as if someone is saying, “If you want to hang out with us, then you must dress this way, talk like this, listen to this kind of music, and shut down all those people over there.” This is called “exclusive” identities – a way of being where one only embodies one identity at a time. No wonder so many of us suffer from imposter syndrome, that feeling of not belonging and of not being good enough to hang out with the “cool kids” at work.


Integrated Self & Others

In contrast to an “exclusive” identity, it is possible to have an “integrated” identity. Humans are complex, multifaceted beings that are so much more than the labels we pin upon them. I can be a leader AND a mom, a scientist-teacher, a Chinese-American, a Democrat who doesn’t always feel her party represents her views and is currently registered as a Republican (there’s a fun story for another day). Becoming integrated begins to address the root causes of imposter syndrome.


This brilliant article from the Greater Good Science Center breaks down why it’s so important to embrace an “integrated”, multifaceted identity in all its complexity and messiness:

“With many selves, there is no single perspective from which to view or react to other people and particular experiences. Instead of fearing this complexity and trying to simplify ourselves and each other, we can adopt a sense of wonder about the multitudes we contain… You can use that insight as a way to connect and respond to the common humanity of others, even with people who at first seem like outsiders.”

I am a messy miracle with a multitude of identities and roles I play. No identity or role is good or bad, right or wrong. Rather than having each identity in separate rooms, bring them all into the same room and look for the connections and interactions between them. You can be all of the above, contradictions included.


For instance, I am a Chinese American who has often hidden and suppressed my Chinese-ness in the interest of ”fitting in”. Even today, I get weird about speaking Chinese, teaching my kids Chinese, and appearing Chinese. Yup. That’s true. Yet Chinese ancestry is part of my identity. I can integrate that bit into the rest of the messy miracle I am in this world. My racial identity has influenced how I showed up as a neuroscientist, as a teacher, and as a leader.


Brene Brown puts it this way in her interview with America Ferrera:


“A lot of people, especially leaders… and especially women, have a tendency to acquiesce to orphaning parts of themselves to be seen more as a leader…


I used to have this slide when I would do decks and talk about integration, where I had this old rickety house. It was a photograph, and I called it Brené’s home for wayward girls and women. And I would talk about calling back all of the parts of myself. I had pictures of me in my Flock of Seagull haircut, and I had pictures with a cigarette hanging out of my mouth and Doc Martins, and I had pictures of me in the delivery room with my kids, and I had pictures of me during some troublesome wild days. And how this calling back of all these parts of me, some beautiful… No, you know what, fuck it, all beautiful. Some troubled, but all beautiful. And I called them back and I became this whole person, and they all are part of me, and I don’t regret any of them.


I refused to orphan them anymore, I refuse to say, I have to kill you. You 20-year-old wild ass, out of control, quasi, self-destructive person, because you don’t fit with my mom image. Well, you know what, you taught me a lot and you make me a better person, a better mom, a better leader.”


See if you can allow all of the roles and identities to have some space to exist, even the weird tangled up bits with perms and braces. Allowing each identity, each role, each “wayward girl” to exist just as it is, and finding the connections between all of the disparate parts is the first step of integration.


What I helped my retreat participant see was that her multitudes shared a common story and common purpose. This wasn’t a choice between the two. She didn’t have to take one off to put on the other. She could find what was common between them and be both at the same time. That’s integration. That's a central part of the work we will be doing on the Heroine's Journey -- finding that integrated self and exploring leadership from that place.


Integrated Leadership

But we who are leaders can go beyond personal integration to improve our organizations and communities. There’s three parts to this:


First, it’s bringing your own integrated self to work. How have all the varied facets of your life experiences made you the leader you are today? For instance, my identity as a mom helps me in the workplace: I’m more patient, consistent with follow through, empathetic, and amazing at multitasking because I’m also a mom. I shouldn’t leave that identity at the office door when I walk into work. Bring your whole self to work. Find your integrated center. That’s your true source of power.


Second, welcome each employee’s whole, integrated self at work. This sounds easy but is actually really hard to achieve because it bumps up against ingrained cultural biases that encourage women and minorities to be “team players”. If the dominant culture isn’t like you, then being a “team player” is asking you to orphan parts of yourself to fit in. Watch Jodi Ann-Burey’s fiery TEDx talk to see what I mean. Working effectively across racial, gender, political, religious, economic, and other lines should be a core competency for everyone. Offer diversity training to avoid biased evaluations, team interactions, and management practices. And most importantly, truly, honestly, and completely welcome differences of opinion and perspective. It’s well worth the effort. Diverse, inclusive workplaces have higher employee satisfaction and retention, make better decisions, and make better investments for their future.


Finally, openly showcase the diversity of your team and all the experiences that they bring. If you pool the experiences, skills, talents and strengths across people, there’s an incredible depth of collective wisdom that can be tapped. One team building exercise I love to use is called a Group Resume. Imagine writing a resume with sections for Education, Work Experience, Volunteer Experience, Skills, and Outside Interests, but instead of it being for a single individual, it’s for the entire team. My team at my school had over a hundred years of teaching experience when all pooled together. We’d taught in preschools, every grade K-12, university, and even overseas. Our collective talents and interests were staggering. Challenges don’t seem so impossible when examining the diverse, collective experiences we carry across all our different roles, identities, and selves.


Read more

Interested in designing a more integrated, inclusive workplace? This great article from Forbes offers a starting point.


I strongly recommend the article from the Greater Good Science Center to learn more about the importance of integrated identity.


Going Further

If you’ve had different sides to your leadership but never knew how to put them together, then the Heroine’s Journey is the place for you. Message me or apply ASAP. Enrollment closes in just two weeks!


If you love this article, consider sharing with someone who might also enjoy this work. And subscribe to my blog for a steady stream of insights and ahas. Not too often. No spam.


If you are seeking one-on-one support to integrate your own identity or overcome imposter syndrome, I’d love to help you create a different future for yourself. Reach out today.

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