Identity Leadership

To Lead Others You Must First Lead Yourself


By Stedman Graham

Read by Stedman Graham

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Become a passionate, purposeful, and meaningful leader through identifying who you are, your strengths, and your skills.

New York Times bestselling author Stedman Graham’s Identity Leadership is a very personal and prescriptive guide that is based on his philosophy that a leader can’t lead others until he can first lead himself-the more he works on himself — the more he can give to those around him. To know our purpose in life, we begin with our passions, skills, and talents, and with this book we learn how to channel the best of who we are to achieve success for ourselves and those we lead.

In Identity Leadership, Graham examines why self-awareness matters, how leaders lead, the importance of communication, and much more. He then shows the reader how to step into their role as a leader and create their identity leadership plan. Key to the journey is believing in yourself, knowing your competence, continually challenging yourself, and being patient with yourself. Graham uses anecdotes from his own life, as well as discussing successful leaders, to illustrate the importance of identity leadership in each of our lives.

Self-leaders can create a roadmap that leads to personal growth, development, and improvement of performance in every area of life. Identity Leadership provides the tools-self-awareness, emotional intelligence, discipline, and more-needed to continually plan and execute learning and development of our talents and skills. These tools enable readers to commit to a personal vision and lead with purpose.


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Identity leadership is very important to me. It’s a topic that is relevant to the 7.7 billion people living today. Identity leadership is self-leadership, and it is based on the philosophy that if you can’t lead yourself, you can’t lead anyone else.

Leadership, or lack thereof, determines the success or failure of an organization. Identity, the true understanding of self, can serve as a leader’s greatest asset. Enduringly successful people know who they are, are clear about what matters to them, and create value for themselves and others.

Identity leadership holds you responsible for your own development. Identity leaders never stop growing or developing. They are lifelong students and never stop taking in new information.

My life dramatically changed for the better when I began centering all that I do around my talents, strengths, and passions. As I came to understand my identity and my purpose in life, that enabled me to realize the value of education, information, and knowledge. I began to make information relevant to my personal and professional development, and that allowed me to define my existence and take control of my life. The old system of memorizing information to take a test and then forgetting the information makes it difficult to grow beyond our circumstances.

Understanding how to apply knowledge and learning to self-actualize your potential is what identity leadership is all about. The Nine-Step Success Process, which I present in this book, works. It will help you reverse the old and ineffective learning process and make everything relevant to who you are.

We all have twenty-four hours in a day. The question is, what do we do with those twenty-four hours to empower ourselves? What are we doing to develop our gifts, our strengths, our talents?

My goal with this book is to improve your performance at every level, enhance your lifelong learning capacity, and change your mindset from that of a follower to a leader—first leading yourself, then others. I’ve dedicated my life to this work of teaching people throughout the world how to self-actualize their potential as human beings. I am thankful and blessed to have discovered for myself who I am and what my purpose is, what my mission in life is, and to be able to share that with as many people as I possibly can.

If you want your life to get better, then take control of it. It’s up to you and no one else. Don’t wait for others to define who you are or what your potential is. That, my friend, is a lifelong journey for you to undertake.

Stedman Graham

Chicago, Illinois


The Call for Identity Leaders

Identity development changes your thinking about what is possible.

Carrie Ponder had a lofty vision for a single mother of eight living in inner-city Chicago: she wanted all of her children to reach their full potential and flourish in their chosen fields. Many in her position would not dare dream of such happiness and fulfillment; they would assume it was unattainable.

But Carrie Ponder held fast to her vision, and she ordered her day by it. What fell in line with that vision, she did; what did not feed or nourish that vision, she did not do.

She enrolled her children in youth centers, church organizations, and library programs.1 She found affordable weekend tickets to plays, museums, and the opera. She turned even mundane city-wide bus rides into the remarkable, pointing out the various architecture along the way and engaging her children in conversation about it.

For ten years, Carrie Ponder and her eight children lived in a three-bedroom apartment. They moved to another apartment building, and it burned to the ground a week later. They lost most of their possessions in that fire.

Carrie Ponder did not let life or that fire defeat her or her children. The fire had taken their material goods, but it had not taken their minds or their spirits or their vision or their potential. She taught her children that their pockets might be empty, but their minds and spirits were rich and full.

Carrie Ponder sent her children to Princeton, to the University of Chicago, to Northwestern University, and to the University of Pennsylvania. She raised a lawyer, an advertising executive, a teacher, and a doctoral student.

She raised her children in such a way that they fulfilled her vision: they reached their full potential and are flourishing in their fields.

Carrie Ponder knew who she was. She knew who her children were. She did not let life’s circumstances define her or her kids. Instead, she opened the door for them to fulfilling, enriching lives.

That is understanding your true identity and demonstrating strong leadership combined.

Carrie Ponder epitomizes identity leadership.

The point is not to become a leader. The point is to become yourself.



For more than thirty years, I have been writing books, teaching in colleges, working in communities, leading nonprofits, and speaking and conducting workshops around the world. In all that time, I have come to know one thing: leadership is everything.

The needs of the twenty-first century cannot be met by followers. The opportunities opening up in the twenty-first century will not be snatched up by followers. The world will not be improved by followers.

It is leaders who will meet those needs, seize those opportunities, and change the world.

Identity leadership is the highest order of leadership. It is a different kind of leadership that is required in the twenty-first century—found in people who are aware of their own intentions and identity, who responsibly lead themselves to overcome obstacles in their own lives and, as a result, lead others to succeed in driving organizational growth.

Without a strong identity, we are more likely to be carried by the influence of our environment into a future requiring very little reflection or development. I have spent my career helping organizations address the leadership gap at every level, because filling that gap is critical to the success of the organization. But to close that gap, we have to understand the nature of true leadership. True leaders are not looking to posture; true leaders are looking to make a difference and to fulfill their mission in life and business.

Identity leadership is the highest order of leadership. It is a different kind of leadership that is required in the twenty-first century.

Linking Identity with Leadership

For most of my career, I have helped people explore and understand their identity, guiding them through the process of clarifying their passions, purpose, and plans to align their visions for their lives with their realities.

Now I am taking that a step further, linking identity to the concept of leadership. These two concepts, when brought into sync with each other, meld into a powerful entity that transforms people’s lives. That’s what this entire book and my identity leadership program are about: transforming your life, opening doors to potential and to opportunities that you didn’t even know existed.

I am helping you become an identity leader, something I believe the world sorely needs.

So, what is an identity leader?

Definition of an Identity Leader

Identity leaders know themselves inside and out.

They are at peace with who they are.

They don’t make excuses for not being strong in every area or for not being perfect. They know their strengths, and they see how to use their strengths to their own and to an organization’s benefit.

They know what they care about and what they are passionate about, and they pour their energies into these passions.

They know how to build teams and be part of a team.

They know how to lead, how to encourage, how to motivate others—and themselves.

They are authentic leaders who lead others with the skills they’ve developed.

They do not give up.

They stand strong on their principles.

They aren’t ruled by fear or other negative emotions.

They are problem solvers.

They see solutions where others see only roadblocks.

They are bridge builders and people connectors.

They see the potential not only in themselves but in others, and they nurture that potential. They bring an energy and unflagging enthusiasm to their work.

They fully expect to fail and to learn from that failure and to be better because of it.

They look forward to each day because of the possibilities it holds.

They naturally attract others because of their vitality, their optimism, and the value they bring to any group they are in.

They remain unfazed by the difficulties of life.

They know who they are, they know where they are going, and they know how they are going to get there. And because they know these things, people follow them and respect them. People pay attention to those who have a vision and who know how to live that vision out, step by step, day by day, decision by decision.


If there is one constant in the world, it is change. Here are just a few recent examples of the seismic changes in various industries brought about by disruptive innovation—which happens when a company introduces an innovation that disrupts an existing market and creates a new market, displacing established market-leading firms and products:

Throughout the 1990s, Blockbuster was the dominant firm in the video rental market. By 2004, it employed over 80,000 people and had more than 9,000 stores worldwide. By 2010, it had filed for bankruptcy. What happened? Netflix, a startup in the industry, grew to dominance with a new delivery system and business model. Ironically, Blockbuster turned down multiple opportunities to buy Netflix for just $50 million in 2000. In 2017, Netflix had total assets of over $19 billion.

When Amazon came on the scene in 1995, Borders bookstore was generating about $1.6 billion a year in sales. The company employed about 19,500 people in more than 600 stores throughout the US. In 2011, Borders filed for bankruptcy. The consensus was that Borders was too late to the web (Borders’ online sales redirected to Amazon, which hurt Borders’ branding), it was too late to e-books, it had too many stores, and it was offering a glut of books when people were shifting to online purchasing. Borders had too much debt, and it over-invested in music sales, getting into CD sales just about the time that music file sharing was becoming popular. As for Amazon, they are the largest internet company in the world, with a revenue of $232 billion in 2018.

Uber is the biggest automobile transportation company in the world—with no overhead for cars. Instead, the peer-to-peer ridesharing company, founded in 2009 and worth $72 billion, uses software to attract customers. At the beginning of 2017, Uber’s share of the US ride-hailing market was 84 percent.

We Live in an Ever-Changing World

Behind each of those disruptive innovations were people with great ideas who were not afraid to buck the industry standards. Those moves not only changed the lives of countless employees and customers of those innovative companies; it opened up new markets, spurred creative thinking and moves in other industries, and placed a high premium on the type of visionary leaders who can not only handle the changes that come their way but create change by going where no company has gone before.

Change is also, of course, rampant in every industry and in people’s professional and personal lives through advances in technology. Here is just a smattering of examples of changes that have happened or are likely to happen in the near future, brought about by technology:

Watson, a question-answering computer system developed by IBM, has deep and far-reaching applications in healthcare, business, education, and many other sectors.

3D printing has revolutionized what we create and how we create it. In China, a five-story office building was constructed through 3D printing. The same company that constructed that building also built ten houses in twenty-four hours through 3D printing. All major shoe companies have begun 3D printing shoes.

Doctors in China gave a boy a 3D-printed spine implant in 2014. In the future, patients will not have to wait for organ transplants; hospitals will be able to bioprint them.

In that same future, people won’t own cars. They will call a driverless car with their smartphone, it will show up and drive them to their destination, and they will pay for the distance driven.

In less than ten years, computer processors are expected to reach the processing power of the human brain. According to two Oxford researchers, about half of American jobs are at high risk of automation.

I could go on and on, but the point is clear: the world is changing, and it is changing fast. And the rate of that transformation, fueled by technology, will become ever faster.

What does that have to do with identity leadership?


It’s the identity leaders who are ushering in these changes and who are adapting the quickest to them. It’s the identity leaders who can take fuller advantage of the new opportunities that are proliferating through the disruptive thinking taking place in industries and the wholesale changes that are occurring in essentially every sector around the globe. It’s the identity leaders who, indeed, are changing the way we live.

Everything you want is on the other side of fear.


Identity Leaders Are Not Afraid of Change

Many people resist change. It makes them feel uneasy, and it takes them out of their comfort zone. They worry and fret about what the change might bring them and how it might affect them. They fear losing the benefits of the old ways of doing business or living life, even if the change promises to bring something better.

Identity leaders are not afraid of change. In fact, they welcome it—and indeed are always assessing why change is needed, when it is right to change, and how to best bring about that change.

Sometimes it is change that helps identity leaders emerge and be recognized. Because even as the world is changing, they, at their core—their true selves, their passions, their abilities, their approach to life—don’t change. Identity leaders assess the change taking place around them and adapt, seeing how they fit into that change—indeed, how they can lead that change. They see their roles in that change and step into those roles.

Tasks, roles, and environments will change. Cultures, organizations, and circumstances will change. But the essence of an identity leader does not change.

That’s an identity leader in a nutshell.

Know this: you can be an identity leader. You can be that person I just described. As you continue through this book, you’ll be presented with the content, ideas, and process that can help you sharpen your identity leader skills and step more fully into your potential.

Identity leaders are not afraid of change. In fact, they welcome it—and indeed are always assessing why change is needed, when it is right to change, and how to best bring about that change.


At the beginning of this book, I talked about Carrie Ponder and how she exemplified identity leadership as she made a way out of poverty for her children to excel in professional fields. In order for her to pave the way for her children, in order for her to lead them out of poverty and into a realm where they could live out their full potential, she had to lead herself first.

Self-leadership is a most critical aspect of identity leadership. Simply put, if you want to lead others, you have to learn how to lead yourself first.

I say that to people, and oftentimes I get a quizzical look in return. I can see the question in their eyes: “Lead myself? Isn’t that an automatic thing that just happens? What does that even mean?”

I know many gifted people who are called to be leaders. They have the requisite skills to lead. They have the desire and motivation, the vision and experience, and many other attributes that leaders possess. Yet, they often find themselves stalled out in their calling to be a leader. They can’t figure out what’s holding them back. They pour even more of their energies into learning about leadership and into the people they are charged with leading. Their focus is outward, external, on directing and managing others.

But their leadership experience is frustrating for them and for those they lead. It’s a two steps forward, one step back experience—or, on some days, it’s one step forward, two steps back. What’s missing? Well, in their haste to rise in leadership, they have skipped over the cornerstone element: self-leadership.

Self-leadership is a most critical aspect of identity leadership. Simply put, if you want to lead others, you have to learn how to lead yourself first.


Self-leadership, at its core, is understanding who you are.

It’s understanding your abilities and your passions and your goals.

Self-leaders know where they are going and how they are going to get there.

They live and think and act intentionally.

They know what they are responsible for.

They know themselves inside and out.

They are authentic and mindful.

They are always developing their self-awareness, self-confidence, and self-efficacy.

Their self-confidence comes from their deep understanding of themselves.

Their self-efficacy—the belief that they can handle whatever comes their way—helps them to calmly assess situations, receive feedback without being sensitive to correction, and adjust to best handle challenges.

Self-leaders are disruptive thinkers, and they are not afraid to rock the boat or follow their creative and innovative thinking.


John Ng is chief passionary officer of Meta Consulting, which provides consulting services to top international corporations. Ng, in writing about self-leadership, says there are four aspects to self-leadership:3

1. Self-awareness. You are self-aware when you are conscious of and understand your own values, perspectives, strengths, weaknesses, leadership propensities, and emotional needs.

2. Self-management. When you can nurture and harness your passions, abilities, emotions, and leadership capacities in your decision-making, you are a self-manager.

3. Other-awareness. You have other-awareness when you can acknowledge and recognize the passions, gifts, strengths, weaknesses, potential, and needs of others.

4. Other-management. When you can grow and motivate other people to develop their potential and fulfill the organization’s objects, you are an other-manager.

Those four aspects of self-leadership are placed in that order for a reason. You have to be self-aware before you can learn how to be a self-manager and nurture your abilities, emotions, and leadership capacities. And you need both self-awareness and self-management before you can be aware of others’ needs and potential. And you need that other-awareness before you can grow the potential in others.

It’s also important to understand that those four aspects remain active and dynamic. It’s not like passing a baton from one relay leg to the next, and then that first relay leg is finished and resting on the sidelines. It’s like that first torch is lighting the next torch, and so on, and soon all four torches are lit. All are active; all are interacting with one another. Those torches don’t burn out; they just collectively burn brighter.

A person who never made a mistake never tried anything new.



Many successful individuals and corporations understand the importance of self-leadership. For example, Christopher Avery, CEO of Partnerwerks, Inc., and a popular presenter on agile leadership, says that “Today’s workers respond to leaders who are authentic, real, principled, responsible, inspired, and courageous. Those are qualities of self-leadership. Leading yourself is 95 percent of leading others.”4 He recommends that those who want to lead first develop and believe in themselves and then find opportunities to add value that inspires them.


Self-leadership can do many things for you, but I want to point out just a few here:

Self-leadership transforms the way you see others. When you appreciate your own strengths and weaknesses, your own aspirations and potential, you can do likewise with others.

Self-leadership helps you achieve your potential. Self-leaders have a longevity that other leaders don’t, because they tend to have higher emotional intelligence than others. Studies comparing those who thrive in leadership roles with those who barely survive indicate that emotional intelligence—rather than cognitive abilities—was a key factor.

Self-leadership keeps you focused on what’s important. Because you have greater self-awareness and self-presence, or sense of self, you are not swayed to sacrifice long-term results for immediate, but likely fleeting, gain.

Self-leadership helps you to leave the legacy you were meant to leave. Self-leaders are the ones who rise up to make their mark, who leave a positive impact on people and organizations, who endure through good times and bad because they are grounded in who they are and in how to lead.


Ken Blanchard, a management consultant and author of more than sixty books, including The One Minute Manager, says that four things happen when a company develops self-leaders:5

The company witnesses accelerated development as self-leaders take control of their own development.

The company sees higher performance from its self-leaders, who are more engaged and committed to the organization.

The company reaps the benefits of self-leaders who hold themselves accountable to achieving their goals and executing the company’s initiatives.

The company experiences increased innovation as self-leaders develop creative, forward-thinking solutions to problems.


Hopefully by now you see the value of self-leadership. It is not just a nice add-on to have, something that supplements your leadership ability. It is essential; it is pivotal. Trying to lead without being a strong self-leader is like getting into a car with no engine and wondering why you can’t make it go.

The world is crying out for more self-leaders, more identity leaders. It’s this type of leadership that is both lasting and impactful. It’s this type of leadership that changes lives—yours and those of the people in your sphere of influence. It’s this type of leadership from which legacies are made.

The great news is that anyone can learn to be an identity leader. This isn’t for the chosen few. It’s for anyone who cares to step into and master the type of leadership that is going to make a difference in the twenty-first century.

If you want to step into and master that type of leadership, keep reading. I’ll show you how.

Trying to lead without being a strong self-leader is like getting into a car with no engine and wondering why you can’t make it go.

Mastering others is strength. Mastering yourself is true power.



The world is impacted and changed by leaders, not followers. Identity leadership is the highest order of leadership—the kind of leadership required in the twenty-first century.

Self-leadership is a critical aspect of identity leadership. You have to learn how to lead yourself before you can learn to lead others.

Identity leaders are problem solvers, bridge builders, and people connectors. They see and nurture the potential in themselves and in others.

Identity leaders know who they are, where they are going, and how they are going to get there.


  • "Stedman Graham teaches the essence of leadership in his workshops. Leadership is not about product, but people and relationships. Stedman takes [people] to the next level in their careers by helping them to understand what is truly important to them. So many people operate without an idea as to where they are going. His programs put the individual in control of his or her career and life."—Jim Cimino, Executive Vice President, Regional Managing Director, Southwest Region - Wells Fargo
  • "Stedman is an artist with unique communication skills that so effectively helped reach these individuals on levels that possibly they have never previously experienced, and I believe that the candor, openness of communication, "tough talk," and practical discussion on their skill development will lead to remarkable maturation and an appreciation of greater personal accountability and for their personal development."—Mike Fox, CEO of the Muhammad Ali Center
  • "Skillfully challenged a very accomplished gathering to deal with their history and habits. A cathartic experience that suggested a deeper understanding of who you are provides a roadmap for the next steps in your journey. Deduced from the definition of leadership: Leaders with a servant's heart, that do not manage from above (who manage from their identity) will provide the most effective leadership in the 21st century."—Mark D. Settles, Managing Director, Fixed Income, JP Morgan Asset Management
  • "SG is one of today's leading authorities on emotional intelligence (Identity Intelligence). Seminars are highly effective because they make you focus on the true leader within yourself."—David M. Reynolds, CMF, VP, Associate Director, Merrill Lynch

On Sale
May 7, 2019
Hachette Audio

Stedman Graham

About the Author

Stedman Graham has built a strong reputation for helping corporations, organizations, and individuals succeed. His life’s work has been and continues to be focused on teaching the value and process of Identity Leadership. He is the author of eleven books, including two New York Times bestsellers, and is the Chairman and CEO of S. Graham & Associates, a management and marketing consulting firm. He lives in Chicago, IL.

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