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Who’s at the Core of Your Leadership?

By Jonathan Bates

Developing Yourself as a People-Centered Leader Series #2

Who is at the core of your leadership?

You may be waving your arms saying, “I am! I am!”  That’s great. But who are you? Really. Who are you, really?

After years as an executive coach, I’ve learned to refine the question. It’s actually “Who are you at your core?”

Not, “Who do you think you’re supposed to be?”
Not, “Who have people told you that you are?”
Not, “Who do you want to be?”
Not, “Who do you want people to think you are?”

But, who are YOU at your core?

Seems easy, but it takes some real work to get the real answer.

And, it’s essential for leading with distinction.


Identifying what is “core” for you raises a challenge.  As you explore these areas, how do you know what’s actually true for you? After all, influencers in your life (parents, siblings, spouses, partners, friends) have communicated expectations, feedback and their perceptions of you (either tacitly or explicitly) and your brain filed them away.

If you are like most people, you have likely internalized some of these messages until you have come to believe they are true about yourself. They have impacted your sense of self. But are they really genuine to you?

For example, if you’ve been told by important others in your life that you have “a great deal of potential,” it implies there’s an expectation of you to achieve a certain high level of (success, proficiency, notoriety, authority…you fill in the blank).

This may be exactly what you want… or not.  Perhaps there’s something different you want out of your life and work. Yet, you feel that there’s an expectation that you have to live up to (as defined by others).

So, what’s actually real for you? An honest, courageous look at yourself (often with the help of a trusted thought partner) is needed to distill out what is true at your core. In my experience, even leaders who have strong self-awareness can benefit from challenging their assumptions and taking a fresh look.


I see two reasons why this matters to leaders. The first is that people trust leaders who they feel are authentic and genuine. They actively distrust those who they feel are not being true.

The second reason is that if you are unaware of what is authentic for you, you can make some whoppers of leadership mistakes. I’ll give you an example.

I was brought in to work with a Vice President who was the controller in the finance division of a prominent utility. Though this leader had great financial credentials and had substantial experience from roles in a large well-known accounting firm, she was on the cusp of being fired because she was making her people cry. Yes, cry… daily.

The strange thing was that when we administered a series of assessments, she scored exceptionally high in emotional intelligence – none of which appeared to be used in her day-to-day leadership.

As we unpacked who she was authentically at her core, we discovered the very caring, emotionally intelligent part of her makeup that she was actively suppressing on a daily basis. Why? Because she had learned lessons from her parents and influential others about how tough she needed to be to make it in a male-dominated field.

In other words, she was acting as she thought she should be instead of as she actually was. She was failing miserably because of this self-expectation. We worked to help her find the way of leading her people successfully using her natural style rather than the harsh one she had adopted.

And, it was hard for her to make that transition, even armed with the knowledge of what was going on. It takes intentional action to change the habits that have kept you from being true to your core.


There are four areas that I find that you benefit from knowing about yourself because they shape how you think and act as a leader.

The first is your Core Authentic Self – that person inside that is you when at your best. Accompanying your Core Self are your Core Values – what you believe is important in your life and work. Then comes your Core Needs – the types of experiences that energize, motivate, satisfy and fulfill you. Finally, your Core Patterns – the patterns of thinking and behavior that shape how you operate in the world.

Taken together, these four represent the core of you are as a human being and as a leader.


Your Core Authentic Self is you at your best. These are the traits and qualities you possess that are most resonant and genuine for you – the “Real You.”

For an individual, the Core Self might include a collection of trait descriptors like strong, smart, funny, caring, no nonsense, nonstop, kind, fierce, generous, and creative. You can imagine the dynamic Core Self this individual possesses. You have your own unique list that applies in your personal and work life as well.

You find your Core Authentic Self, not through a checklist of traits, but by assessing important relationships and finding the mirrored commonalities. Once identified, this model helps you stay true to yourself.

BTW, your Core Authentic Self is not an imposter.  Think about it.


I doubt it’s surprising that an important part of your core identity are the values that guide your actions and drive your decisions. Understanding what you value most makes the complex nature of your life and work easier to navigate.

Uncovering your Core Values is more than using a values list or prioritization exercise. Why? How would you know whether a value is truly deeply held, or whether it is a value you have been taught to believe you should adopt?

A better method is to use an evidence-based approach. Examine what you want your life in the distant future and then see what values that vision represents. Your most important values are more clearly revealed. An extended timeframe releases you from the practical aspects and encourages your genuine intuition to emerge.


Core Needs are the way you live out your values. These represent the actions and experiences that create positive feelings and motivated energy, typically based on your values. They are the keys to fulfillment and purpose.

Your Core Needs might include accomplishment, connection, reflection, collaboration, tangible results, being part of something bigger or any of dozens of other types of experiences. You likely have a collection 8-20 of these in a combination unique to you. Core Needs are not the same as Core Values.

As an example, you and I might each value achievement and contribution. However, your Core Needs might be to do so through collaboration with others, taking risks, and doing challenging works that aid people who need help. My Core Needs might include focused time working independently, being an expert, seeking practical applications, and being creative in finding solutions to serious problems. Similar Core Values but different Core Needs.

Core Needs are a powerful and useful way to create a fulfilling career, establish purpose in your life, build satisfying relationships, create meaningful outcomes, and pursue engaging interests.

As a leader, understanding your Core Needs helps you create fulfilling professional experiences for yourself that avoid the negative effects of using reckless strategies to meet your needs that crush initiative in others, sabotage results and derail your organization.


Neuroscience research has shown us that our brains default to using approaches that have worked in the past as a way of reducing risk.

This means that despite your desire to do everything in a fresh, unique way every time, the reality is that you constantly repeat patterns of thinking and behavior, even unconsciously.

This repetitive strategy is actually incredibly helpful to you. This shortcuts the need to have to “recreate the wheel” every time. In a sense, it’s a “silent partner,” operating in the background to make things work.

For instance, when you drive a car to work or to go shopping, it’s likely you don’t think consciously about every turn of the steering wheel or application of the brakes. If you had to think that hard every moment of your drive, it would be too all consuming and unpleasant. A little automaticity is actually very useful in dealing with your day-to-day work and life.

This helps… except when you want to do something different. Need to be innovative, creatively solve a problem, or find news ways eliminate inefficiency? You know…what leaders need to do constantly? Left to its own devices, your brain will always fall back into the old patterns. It takes conscious and intentional thought and action to break the cycle and embrace new approaches.

Unveiling your unconscious personal patterns of thinking and behavior gives you access to new ways of dealing with challenges or adapt to change. How can you inspire others to thrive in the face of change if you don’t yourself?


The first characteristic of a people-centered leader is KNOWING YOURSELF. In this article, we’ve shared ideas on conducting the self-exploration needed to gain this essential self-understanding to lead with distinction.

For more ideas, check out People-Centered Leaders Will Put Organizations Back Together.


Want more information about our True to Your Core coaching program for executive leaders? Contact us here.





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