It’s a long way to the top, and there are many opportunities to discard the essential elements of ourselves along the way. The challenge is to keep growing and developing without becoming something we are not. In the 1930s Marion Milner wrote A Life of One’s Own, a powerful work about identity, identifying what’s important to you and remaining true to yourself. It’s a book that is still relevant to nearly 90 years later and offers us a guide on how to keep growing without losing ourselves.

Understand why you are validated – or not

“I discovered that I was drifting without rudder or compass, swept in all directions by influence from custom, tradition, fashion, swayed by standards uncritically accepted from my friends, my family, my countrymen, my ancestors.” – Marion Milner, A Life of One’s Own

Everyone likes to be validated in what they do. When others celebrate us we may feel successful. When they disapprove, we might feel belittled. If we keep failing to receive validation for our leadership attempts, our self-confidence can be damaged and we become less likely to take risks and grow.

The challenge is that validation often depends on our conformity to the cultural norms of an organisation. If the organisation assumes leadership should adhere to a particular style, they will overlook the merits of people that can’t be squeezed into that mould.

In this situation, a leader that doesn’t conform to senior-level norms will either be discouraged out of growth, or will put aside a key part of themselves to score promotion. As Milner writes, we run the risk of simply drifting “into accepting one’s wants ready-made from other people”. This identity cycle must be broken.

Engage in introspection

“…instead of trying to force myself into doing what I imagined I ought to do I began to enquire into what I was doing. I little knew what this apparently simple act of trying to be aware of my own experience would involve me in.” – Marion Milner, A Life of One’s Own

Marion Milner discovered that there were two opposing attitudes a person could adopt to face their problems: “One, to try and change the external world, the other, to try to change oneself.”

Successful growth must begin from the inside, but where do we draw the line between changing ourselves to fit into an organisation’s culture, and changing our mindsets to become the best versions of ourselves? If our underlying goal is validation from those higher up the hierarchy, our desire to grow will be subtly skewed to their values – even if they are different to our own.

This confusion can make the difference between growing and finding ourselves, or advancing but losing ourselves and what’s important to us. Marion Milner expressed this frustration in her search, “Was there not a way by which each person could find out for himself what he was like, not by reading what other people thought he ought to be, but directly, as directly as knowing the sky is blue…?”

An obvious remedy is to continually ask questions and engage in self-reflection. To keep sweeping layers of dust off our thinking, to sift through the values that lie under our surface, gradually excavating the leader in us that is undaunted and free.

Grow in self-belief, not just confidence

“Were these reliable guides for one’s life? I could not assume that they were, for everywhere around me I saw old ways of doing things breaking down and proving inadequate.” – Marion Milner, A Life of One’s Own

Another factor that can confuse the growth process is the difference between confidence and self-belief. Confidence comes from the acquisition of skills, knowledge and expertise. The world places a premium on it and as a result it is possible to climb the career ladder and achieve a measure of success without ever examining our identity.

Self-belief, on the other hand, comes directly from a strong sense of identity – a combination of values, history, relational experience, personal agency, and all you appreciate in yourself. It cannot be acquired without self-reflection, and it is usually not disrupted by a person’s environment. Building self-belief enables us to navigate storms, anchored to our values, steady in our own sense of purpose.

As we embark on a journey of growth, it is ultimately our values, purpose and self-belief that will determine whether we become more of ourselves, or if we deviate to what others want us to be. There is little point in climbing to the top just to have an identity crisis at the summit. Likewise, it is fruitless to stay locked in organisational habits that require you to repress yourself in a certain way to receive validation. As for the way ahead, a good place to start is by daring to look beneath the surface of yourself.

For more information, or to discuss your own development, please get in touch.