08/04/2014 11:28 am ET Updated Oct 04, 2014

Leading From Within Requires Knowing Who You're Not

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When I give talks and teach courses in leadership, I often say that before you can lead others, you have to be able to lead yourself. To do that, you need to know yourself.

Most of us think we know ourselves. We also think we are leading ourselves when, in fact, we are not. This mistake occurs because of a fundamental misunderstanding of who we are. Many leadership programs lead us fundamentally astray because they build upon, instead of strip away, this basic misunderstanding. That's why many of our current ideas about leadership are not only incorrect, they are destructive -- and many of our leaders today exhibit both destructive and self-destructive qualities.

Who You're Not: Of course, I'm not the first person to suggest that we need to know ourselves. The aphorism "Know thyself" came from the Greeks. It is a Delphic maxim that has been attributed to Socrates as well as many other Greek sages. There is so much wisdom in this two-word saying that thousands of years later, we are still unpacking it. But knowing yourself is just part of knowing who you really are, and who you are not.

Here are some tips for helping you to sort out who you are, and for helping you to come to know your true self, essence, or real self:

1. You are not your body. Your body is only a shell. That means you are not your physical appearance, your gender or your age. All of those things affect how we feel about ourselves and how we think about ourselves, but that makes them part of our self-concept. Our self-concept is a changeable construct often dependent upon external circumstances. It is not who we really are.

2. You are not your primal drives, wants and physical needs. Bodies come with baggage: they need to be fueled, rested, sheltered and warmed. They also come with feelings, which leads to wants: the desire for good feelings. In addition, they come with hardware and software programs for meeting those needs and wants. We call the hardware our brain and the software our thoughts. Our true self is neither of these.

3. You are not your role or title. You are not husband, wife, president, owner, engineer, waitress, doctor, truck driver or parent. Those are labels for describing things you do. While our roles and titles also affect our self-construct, they are also changeable, superficial, limiting and ultimately inaccurate.

4. You are not your possessions. In our materialistic, consumer-driven society, it's easy to identify with our possessions or attachments. The entire concept of branding is built around exploiting the feelings we associate with outer symbols. We like or acquire these outer symbols at least in part to build and strengthen our self-concept.

5. You are not your accomplishments. While winning a trophy feels good, you do not inhabit your accomplishments, nor do they inhabit you. As medical records are to your body, promotions, awards, degrees - even skills and talents - are to your true self. They are part of your track record, but they are not the real you any more than your medical records are your body, or a golden calf or mythical hero is a real god or goddess. Like possessions, they are idols or the crutches worn and used by your self-construct to create good feelings.

All of these aspects of self, which we often mistake for our real self, comprise the ego - a bundle of complex wants, needs and insecurities that consumes most of our waking energy and attention, unless we consciously choose to direct it elsewhere. So when most of us think we are leading ourselves, it is our ego that is leading us. In other words, our fears, our greed and our insecurities -- hardly the best parts of us -- are in the driver's seat.

Who are you, then? To find your true self, I offer this suggestion: look to the space in between your thoughts.

Ratanjit S. Sondhe is the founder and CEO of Discoverhelp, Inc., a public speaker and the author of the new book, How Oneness Changes Everything: Empowering Business Through 9 Universal Laws.