Existential anchors

a dragon tree with tangled roots

Accompanying those practical issues is something to do around meaning and purpose, something to do with who am I, what am I about in this world?
– attributed to Matthew, CEO (research participant) in M. Webster, personal communication (seminar), 2 May 2017.

I attended Mike Webster‘s seminar this afternoon on social work leadership values. The presentation referred to findings from Mike’s PhD research, which sought to articulate a model for organisational leadership within social work in the context of Aotearoa New Zealand. The model he developed uses the metaphor of leadership as a tree: a holistic process with integrated components including the operating context (soil), the leader’s values (roots) and their actions (fruit). We explored one aspect of this model today: values, and in particular the ideas of identity and integrity, understood as:

to be honest about one’s ability (including performance anxiety), demonstrating qualities of reliability, transparency (or authenticity) impartiality, and approachability. These qualities acknowledge the influence of personal identity and integrate personal and professional ethical values by asking “who am I?” They are shaped by a practitioner’s self-efficacy, genetic make-up, personal, professional and educational journeys and by role model or mentoring relationships.
M. Webster, personal communication (seminar), 2 May 2017.

The presentation invited us to reflect on some of the statements made by research participants. One of the feedback questions was: What significance do we attach to these existential questions posed by some participants in defining leadership: (i) who am I? (ii) what am I about in this world?

The importance of self-knowledge to living a good life is one of the oldest recorded human ideas, and many people wiser than I have written on its broader philosophical implications. Here are smaller, partial reflections I had on why examining identity and developing self-awareness are important for leadership:

Who am I?

The process of leadership happens in relationship between people. In order to effectively engage with and listen to other people’s perspectives, it’s essential to be able to recognise what you’re bringing to the conversation. Your values, background and identity shape the ways that you interpret what you hear; it’s only when you recognise your biases that you can begin to filter out your assumptions.

Particularly for people who come from backgrounds or experiences associated with privilege and cultural hegemony (Pākehā, English-speaking, school-educated, heteronormative, gender-conforming, non-disabled, thin, etc), it can be easy to assume that your perspective is natural, normal or default. That is, when your personal view aligns with cultural norms, organisational policies or hegemonic ideals, it takes more work to understand that it’s subjective, and not the only way of seeing things. It can be easy to misunderstand or misconstrue other perspectives.

So, knowing who you are enables more genuine relationships. It allows you to stand in your own place, firmly rooted in your own soil, while having enough perspective to respect where others are standing and meet them on a more equal basis.

What am I about in this world?

Having a sense of what your life is for – that is, an understanding of your purpose, values and life’s work – guides direction and decision-making. Being clear on your purpose supports you to make choices, and decide where you can compromise; where you need to stay firm. It makes visible your life’s thread and supports you to find the next right step to take.

Purpose is one of the keys to human motivation (according to Daniel Pink (cited in Popova, 2013) and others) and drives leaders to keep doing things. Authentic leadership happens when your sense of purpose is aligned with the ways you behave in leadership roles, and the actions you take.

So, having a sense of what you’re about means you’re more able to lead coherently, based on an authentic sense of purpose.


Popova, M. (2013). Autonomy, Mastery, Purpose: The Science of What Motivates Us, Animated. Retrieved from Brain Pickings: https://www.brainpickings.org/2013/05/09/daniel-pink-drive-rsa-motivation/.

Webster, M. (2017). Personal communication.


4 thoughts on “Existential anchors

  1. Moira it was great to see you at Mikes seminar. So glad you were able to attend. Wasn’t it a thought provoking seminar -great -and super to network with a diverse group. Having done a lot of sailing I really enjoyed your concept of the anchor. Many a time after a rough and challenging sail I was ready to take safe haven and put that anchor down and relax. The anchor for me symbolises connection, in this instance connecting the yacht to the sea bed. When properly laid the anchor will prevent the yacht drifting and as leaders we need to be connected and when aware of when we are at risk of drifting from our values and core purpose. It doesn’t mean we might not reappraise them – many a night we had to relay the anchor. But of course having an anchor is not enough it has to be properly laid and there is an art and skill in that. It has to be properly laid at the right time and in the right place with the right amount of chain/rope let out. Lessons for leadership here – the right place, the right time, the right amount of flexibility.

    Journeys can be long or short, smooth or rough or some where in between its about strength and stability .

    “To reach a port we must set sail –Sail, not tie at anchor Sail, not drift.” Franklin Roosevelt

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you – I love this! Thinking of sailing analogies, I was reminded of that quote often attributed to Antoine de Saint-Exupéry: “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”

      I was looking up the source of this and found that the original quote is even nicer: “One will weave the canvas; another will fell a tree by the light of his ax. Yet another will forge nails, and there will be others who observe the stars to learn how to navigate. And yet all will be as one. Building a boat isn’t about weaving canvas, forging nails, or reading the sky. It’s about giving a shared taste for the sea, by the light of which you will see nothing contradictory but rather a community of love.”
      from http://quoteinvestigator.com/2015/08/25/sea/


  2. Someone once quoted to me a famous line of Socrates (attributed to him anyway) “A life not reflected on is a life not worth living.” Reading your post brings me to this.

    I have been sitting with what you wrote about hegemony and how it blinds us – or helps us see (depending on perspective) where the power lies in our society and what that might mean for us all – leaders included. Knowing who I am helps me see who I am and who I am not. It leads me to an authenticity that I truly cannot fake.

    Thanks for the thought provoking post.

    Liked by 1 person

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