Part 2: Addressing inner identity in leadership and at home


Last week I wrote about a coaching day that I had with Daniel Harkavy, the CEO of Building Champions. If you haven’t had a chance to read it yet, you can find the link to that piece here. It illustrates what I think has set Daniel apart during his executive coaching career: his innate ability to see potential in others and empower them to experience inner transformation both as leaders and as human beings.

Today I want to share part of a conversation between Daniel and I, which came about a few weeks after our coaching day at the beach cabin.

Kirk: You told me recently that you can’t change someone’s behavior until you help them address their identity. Can you unpack that for me?

Daniel: Sure, but let me lay some groundwork first. Leadership effectiveness is determined by the decisions a leader makes and the influence they have. I’m sure you’ve seen leaders who have all the smarts but they have no ability to influence or connect with the people around them.

In order to be an effective leader, it’s important to address two parts of leadership: the “being” of leadership and the “doing” of leadership. Most of us are familiar with the practical “doing” aspects, but the “being” is all about who leaders believe they and those around them are. Are they comfortable in their own skin? Do they understand themselves? Are they OK with their shortcomings and inadequacies, and yet still recognize that they bring real gifts to the world? When leaders know who they are and how they add value, they don’t need to pose and act like a know-it-all.

Kirk: It sounds like there are some elements of emotional intelligence at play here.

Daniel: Absolutely. Emotional intelligence is directly linked to identity and how we connect to and influence others. A lot of it also has to do with the narratives that leaders—all of us, really—play in our minds. What narrative plays in the heat of the moment, when your brain goes on auto-pilot? We’ve all seen those people who seemingly self-destruct for no reason during times of pressure, stress or conflict. Much of the time this destruction is prompted by a false narrative. What we’re feeling in those self-destructive moments can actually be our brain subconsciously linking back to a situation in our past that feels similar to what we’re experiencing in the present moment even though the two events have no connection to one another. They just feel the same.

Kirk: Can you give me an example of what that looks like?

Daniel: You could be a 54-year-old CEO who loses her cool whenever someone questions her. In all other high-pressure areas, this CEO could perform very well, but this one area pokes at something deeper. If she were to explore why she yells at and belittles anyone who questions her, she might discover that it reminds her of being 14 years old again. Perhaps being questioned as a teenager made her feel like an “embarrassed idiot,” ingraining a narrative such as, “I’m not good enough.” Thus, during meetings with her senior leadership team, this false narrative is triggered, causing her to instinctively respond with her defenses high. These false narratives are not only a huge barrier to her personally, but they make it very challenging to be a leader who effectively influences the people around her.

Kirk: So for CEOs and executive leaders, the “being” part of leadership is directly influenced by these narratives, whether true or false?

Daniel: That’s right. It’s got quite the cyclical effect, too. If we’re at the mercy of these false narratives, if we’re not comfortable in our own skin, then oftentimes, we will also go through life doing things to get the affirmation that will make us feel good about ourselves. Which, again, can result in a pretty destructive set of behaviors for a leader.

Kirk: As your friend, I know that helping people address their inner identities isn’t just something you do professionally, but it’s also something you model in your personal life. Can you share a bit about how this inner transformation looks in your family?

Daniel: My wife and I are blessed with four children of our own plus two of their spouses, and over the years we’ve had nine additional children come and live with us. Seven of the nine children came in with some form of addiction and are now addiction free. A lot of this work to overcome addiction and see inner transformation has to do with cultivating an environment where they feel the love of God and experience how to function in a different, not any saying better, just different family. We also start by getting them on a healthier track.  We focus first on their physical and then their spiritual health.  For the most part, that old saying is true: More is caught than taught. They see love on display in our house, they watch it, they experience it and they model it.

Kirk: It sounds like you’ve developed and refined a sort of road map for inner identity and transformation.

Daniel: Yes, I like to think of it as a GPS. Whether it’s a child who’s addicted or a senior leader who feels stuck, I start by asking, “Where do you want to go?” Then together we build a road map with milestones and check points. And I journey alongside while they put in the daily work to get to that next place.

Kirk: What do you think happens when we don’t have a road map?

Daniel: I think it’s really easy to get stuck in what I call the drift, and if you don’t know how to get out of it, it’ll drown you. A lot of people are going through life aimlessly and missing the opportunity to reach their full potential. I believe that there’s always an opportunity to do more, to accomplish more and to add more value to those around us. There is hope for those of us with addiction, just as there’s a way for business leaders to operate from a creative/abundant posture.


Daniel Harkavy is the CEO of Building Champions and leads a national team of executive coaches and CEO Mentors. Together they work with CEOs and executive leaders around the country to help them find balance and abundance at work, at home and in their communities.