Chief Executive Insights

Executives must answer the question – Who Am I?

Payal Nanjiani

Christina– a successful Canadian CEO, married mother of two, was a workaholic. Her life was full of money, power, and a jet-setting lifestyle. If you were to meet with her, you would probably envy her. People surrounded her for advice, and she was called upon at various public conferences to speak about her success.

I knew Christina from when she stepped into the CEO role in 2009. She had hired me as her coach for the next nine months. Eleven years later, Christina contacted me again to meet her.

As we talked, she told me about her decision to step down from the CEO position but was very hesitant to take the call.

Her answer did not shock me when I asked her why the hesitance. She said, ‘Payal, I do not know what I will be or do after I step down. When I was with family and friends, my work was the first, second, and third thing they’d ask about. I have been in the news all the time for my results. Who am I without this role and work?’

Christiana and many other executives go through an identity crisis where they experience a sense of inadequacy. Coaching numerous executives, I realized there is power in the question—”Who am I?” And as philosophical this question might sound, it builds a connection of you with yourself. It helps you understand how you would like to engage with yourself.

I’ve witnessed many CEOs who are very focused on day-to-day operations that they lose themselves. And when the day comes to step down from their position, though externally you may see them happy and saying a great speech, let me tell you, internally, they feel broken. They are often confronted with a distressing thought, claiming that they don’t know who they are.

They can see all the accolades, titles, and fame leave them, making them feel lonely. And then, depression, anxiety, stress, burnout, loneliness, and sadness enter their lives.

All this is because of not knowing who we truly are. From an individual contributor to the CEO of large organizations, this question remains hugely unanswered today.

Knowing yourself is a journey. It is not a quick, leisurely activity. It’s also not about finding what your favorite color or passion is. Knowing yourself is about discovering who you are as a human being, the real you. And let me tell you, it’s a daily work.

Before knowing the why, I encourage my clients to know the I by doing a self-optimization exercise which begins with them filling in the blank “I am ___________________.”

Every single day when you wake up make sure you answer the question ‘Who am I today?’ And the answer to this question keeps evolving because our identity is an ongoing process.

The key to leading the organizations and people is leading yourself and this requires an understanding of our inner dynamics of thinking and feeling. It makes perfect sense to seek a deeper sense of self to become intimately aware of your thoughts, feelings, hopes, and fears.

Saint Kabir (an Indian poet) said this very well, “I went to find a bad person, but could not find any. But when I looked within myself, I found no one worse than me.” It’s like Walt Kelly exclaimed in his Pogo cartoon strip, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” To be the most valuable person to the team and organization, we must first conquer our inner enemy by knowing who we are. When you dig deep and answer “Who am I?” the quest for high performance ends.

Ultimately, all of us will have to leave our professional life one day. At that time, when you look back and ask yourself, “Who am I?” what role or title will you give yourself? When we retire or lose our job, our external status is often lost, and many people respond with depression. I have worked with people who have lost their titles, roles, possessions, jobs, and even entire businesses. They claim that they don’t know who they are. They feel obsolete and useless.

So “Who am I?” is the most profound question for all leaders which will sustain them through the ups and downs of their careers and beyond. Begin to discover your inner leader, and you will begin to truly “walk by faith not by sight”. Ultimately success and failure are nothing but a game of the inside. The more empowered your inner leader is, the better your results will be.


Written by Payal Nanjiani.
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Payal Nanjiani
Payal Nanjiani CEO and founder of the Payal Nanjiani Leadership company. She has been named as most influential Leadership speaker and executive coach by Times Group.


Payal Nanjiani is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine. Connect with her through LinkedIn. For more information, visit the author’s website.