On Identity Based Leadership

If you’ve been on a Crystalaire trip you know we talk about a lot of boxes. We draw them in the sand, lay them out in rocks and twigs, or draw them on small portable whiteboards. And then, often, we break them. It’s part of what we call “identity-based dynamics,” and it’s our own twist on the leadership education dialogue taking place nationwide.

One of the things that we really believe in is that people’s perceived identity influences the way that they 27879814515_32bd5d5c75_obehave. Who you believe you are shapes how you respond to where you are.  

We sometimes work with very young kids – even as young as 5 or 6 – and they can be quite blunt about this. “I’m the bad kid” he says, with a cheeky grin. He knows who he is, he knows how he should act. Young as he is, he has just uttered one of the most powerful phrases in identity based leadership.

“I am the ______ kid. I am the ______ person.”

You know who you are, and you live according to that. Isn’t that so often our life aspiration?

This attitude isn’t a problem, as long as you know it is an attitude that can change. In fact, we strive for people to come away from a trip or a session at camp with some sense of what their strengths and norms are. We want people to come away with the story that drives them, the trajectory they are on. Successful experiences end with someone saying “I got to be me and it’s even better when they say“and that gives me power.”

The problem is that you are not always the one setting your own identity. You are not always building your own box. Now, the identity and the box are not the same. Boxes are static, identity is fluid. Boxes hold you in. Identities give you something to express. Your identity may occasionally move through a box, but it need never stay there.

girlsOnly one person will be with you forever: you. To everyone else you are a character in their story, and they’ll only see you for a few pages or handful of chapters. Only you get to see the whole book. It is important to remember than, how others see you. The class you share, your time in the same room at home, the brief glimpse between windows as cars pass on the highway – in every case, you end up in a box someone else builds to understand their world and your place in it. It begs a new question – who built the “bad kid” box our 5-year old was in? Likely not him. The trick is to recognize that people may box you, and you can’t change that – but it doesn’t mean they’re right.

This is where our programs become an essential tool towards understanding identity-based leadership. Out in the woods with us you will be a constant part of others people’s lives. They will begin to see the fluid identity that you carry over time and space. You may start in a box, but you won’t end there.

On a Crystalaire Adventure we build the boxes, but we also take the extra step of talking about them.  We have entire systems dedicated to putting people in a box, and we talk about those too. Maybe it is your age, your race, your gender, your size. We box birds and butterflies and trees. It is a big part of how we operate, and it has an impact: “You can’t do this because you are this age.”  “You can’t do this because you are a student, not a teacher.”

Boxes are valuable. They help us dissect and focus and predict and understand. But when people believecalimage that their box is their identity, and when that box is a simple story instead of the rich and complex ongoing narrative that is every human, we have a problem. If we put humans in a structure where it is assumed they will be childish,  then they will likely act like children. There is no incentive not to, whether you are 8, 18, or 80. Think about it: how many of our social systems, especially for kids, are built around rules to stop them from doing wrong? That just tells them what they are expected to be doing. We need spaces that encourage them to be right, and that “right” needs to be – at least in part – their own creation.

At Camp Lookout and Crystalaire we avoid putting kids in the “kid box,” then making that box worth less than the “adult box.” Many assume that if children are given a right to create and design their own societies (see our thoughts on microsociety) that you end up with an apocalyptic Lord of the Flies situation. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Like anyone else, young people want healthy relationships and a comfortable environment.

They may eat all the Pop Tarts in the first day or quickly run down the ration of Oreos. But that is a lesson, and it will be learned. Humans of all ages are masterful learners. Barring a few exceptions for underdeveloped frontal lobes and other developmental differences we find this works pretty darn well. Not because we are treating children like responsible adults – the common misconception people have of our work – but because we treat them like responsible children.

We have faith in our kid’s maturity, we trust their judgment. We are often disappointed, not because they are kids, but because they are human. We all fail. We all disappoint. Age is a proxy value for maturity, but it does not guarantee it. Maturity stems from experience. Experience comes not just from living through something, but from actively engaging in it, reflecting on it, and using the experience to shape the story of your own identity and trajectory. It’s not about the  identity given to you (that’s a box) but one made when – coming sopping wet out of a river, making a new friend, perfecting your fire-baked cheddar biscuit, or sleeping soundly through a storm – you say of your own volition “I got to be me, and that gives me power.”

That’s the kind of box we’ll get behind. The one you build, rebuild, break apart, and paint a different color when you want to. We call it a mask – something that does not so much hide you, as present you in the way you know you deserve to be seen – and having that in your life will make a difference, we promise.