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Labels Limit Leaders. Even the “Good” Ones

I am…

… not creative.

… analytical.

… not assertive.

… collaborative.

… not corporate.

… entrepreneurial.

As human beings, we love patterns. They help us assess and understand the world. Labels are how we categorise those patterns by describing them in a simplified way. They have a purpose - to help us make sense of a world that can be very complex. While there are some labels, e.g. “entrepreneurial”, that appear to be more positive than others, e.g. “not assertive”, ALL labels (even the “good” ones) have the ability to limit us all, especially when we wear them unconsciously and based on other people’s limited perspective.

How Labels Limit Leaders

I was a “good” student all through school. The model student. My report cards were filled with A*s & As, all surrounded by descriptors like “attentive”, “a pleasure to teach” and “studious”. On top of that, I was particularly great at Maths and the Science - you know, the “hard” subjects. I wasn’t as great at History or English but because I managed to get good grades and had already proven myself with the “hard” subjects, my slight deficiencies in the “easier” subjects didn’t really matter. These labels followed me through primary school, secondary school, and eventually into university. Getting an MEng in Computing from Imperial College London was the perfect end to my formal education. Getting a degree in a subject for “smart” people at a university for “smart” people was akin to permanently tattooing all these labels to my person.

Don’t get me wrong, those labels served me well in many ways. Teachers, and later colleagues, gave me the benefit of the doubt when it came to my capability. In addition, hearing others say that I was smart served as a confidence booster when I needed it the most. It also served as motivation by pushing me to continuously strive to maintain those labels and avoid the embarrassment of not living up to the standards that were set for me. It propelled me to work harder, push further, and achieve more success.

However, in hindsight, as with many things in life, it wasn’t that simple. Those “good” labels also held me back in many ways, as they do so many other leaders and high-achievers.

1. Labels limit a leader’s potential to be truly exceptional. Truly exceptional and inspiring leaders are not perfect at everything and they don’t try to be. Instead, they are truly great based on their unique combination of gifts, which stems from the unique life they have lived. From their unique experiences, upbringing, education, community, success, “failures”, and more. When one reduces their gifts to a set of simple labels, e.g. “analytical” they commoditise their gifts and assume that those gifts can be equally and exactly replaced by another person with the same gift. Thereby forgetting to recognise and express the uniqueness of their gifts, without limiting their potential.

2. Labels put leaders in boxes and at some point, the box will get too small for growth. Professionals who wear their labels like a permanent tattoo either forget to grow outside of those labels or fear that trying to grow outside of the labels will result in failure. After all, if you’ve already got a bunch of “good” labels associated with you, do you really want to risk trying something that you may fail at and therefore impact your reputation? Best to stay safe where you are, right? Maybe... but just like being in a box, the Safe Zone is not conducive to growth.

3. The “good” labels amplify the “bad” labels and the “bad” labels create stress. In focusing on the “good” labels, by default leaders also highlight the “bad” ones. A great example of this is seen in schools across the world. Teachers label young people, often with the best intentions. Pupils are often seen as science or art students, sporty or academic, popular or shy. This x-or-y option assumes that you can’t be both. False! If you have structured a sentence like “I have never been very good at …. Even as a child”, you likely resonate with this. Just because you are great at something does not, by default, mean that you aren’t good at the opposite thing. It means you likely haven’t found your unique version of the opposite label that speaks to your unique strengths, passions and values.

4. Labels exasperate imposter syndrome, an already common unconstructive mindset for high-achievers. In adopting a label, we create an evidence-base that proves the label is accurate. However, evidence alone is not enough. When you adopt a label without truly believing that it is an accurate reflection of who you are, it becomes a case of consistently trying to create more evidence that proves your worth of that label. This is required to keep up the pretence for fear of someone finding out that you aren’t really intelligent, inspiring, or a leader, i.e. Imposter Syndrome!

5. Labels limit a leader’s ability to deliver exceptional results by limiting their ability to bring out the best in their team. In the same way that labels affect us as leaders, they also affect individuals in our teams. Therefore, if you see your teams only through limiting labels, this causes two problems: 1. You may inadvertently exasperate the same limitations in them (as described above). 2. You will likely miss out on opportunities to leverage the strengths of your team members because you see them in just one way.

Avoid the trap of labels by counteracting Label-Limiting Mindsets & Actions

As a leader, it is important to recognise the limiting labels you accept, both for yourself and for your people. If your aim is to perform to the best of your ability and for individuals around you to do the same, then consider how you might be limiting yourself and your teams through the labels you adopt and apply by default. Here are a few ideas to avoid the trap of limiting labels:

  1. Shed labels that do not empower you. Feel doubt, frustration, or misalignment with a label you hold that doesn’t really serve you? Replace it. For example, instead of telling yourself “I’ve never had a good memory”, try “I have a great memory!”. What have you got to lose?

  2. Try new labels on for size. Never seen yourself as a creative? Look for creative exercises to do. You will likely find that you are actually creative (as we all are!), but just in a unique way that you had never considered. Have fun experimenting with it.

  3. Go deeper by leaning into your label. Feel disconnected from a label that serves you? Try going deeper. Lean in. See yourself as an effective communicator? Explore specifics around what is unique about the way you communicate. Again, experiment fearlessly to discover the exceptional qualities that bring that label to life..

  4. Create opposite-labels. Corporate hippie. Christian yogi. British Nigerian. Committed free-spirit. These are just a few of my opposite-labels that I embrace. On paper, they shouldn’t work, but in reality they fuel my superpowers. What are yours?

  5. Take ownership of your own story. You don’t have to accept every label that is given to you. Incorporate the ones that serve you. Dump the ones that don’t. Your life, your narrative.

  6. See the unique gifts and potential in all your people. It can seem easier to keep your people boxed in, but think about all the untapped potentials and uncovered gifts that you are missing out on. Once you help them out of their box, you may discover new wins and successes that weren’t previously possible.

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Yewande is the founder & CEO of OTITỌ Leadership Coaching & Consulting, where she partners with organisations, business leaders & high-achievers to help them accelerate to their next level of success. She brings the knowledge and experience she has gained as a Certified Professional Coach, as a McKinsey consultant and a Morgan Stanley VP. Want to discuss how we can help you accelerate to your next goal? Email us.


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