I have been a long believer that what we do as a profession and who we are as a person are two separate and distinct things. Sure we can make assumptions about who someone is based upon their chosen profession and sometimes we may even be right. I would imagine that each of us forms a first impression of another based on what it is they do. Think about it for a second. How might you think of the person your friend is bringing with her to dinner if all you knew was his occupation? A doctor? A fireman? A stay-at-home parent? A pilot? A cook? A retail salesperson? A professional athlete? A military service member? No matter how right (and normally wrong) we might find ourselves about our assumptions, we are quick to make them.

I am also struck by how most people respond when they are asked by a new acquaintance to “Please, tell me about yourself.” Try this yourself and I am willing to bet that nearly every response you receive begins with what they do for a living. Whether they are a student, a police officer, a lawyer, a writer, a painter, or you name it, people tend to confuse who they are with what they do. Currently, I work in a position of somewhat anonymity. I say anonymity because in the minds of most, who I am does not matter nearly as much as what I do. You see, I work directly for the four-star Admiral who happens to lead the largest agency in the intelligence community, as well as our nation’s warfighting arm in cyberspace. When people engage with me at work, it is not to engage me, but to get to him. To most, I am not Sean Heritage, I am “The Admiral’s Exec”, I am an extension of him and not my own person. Don’t get me wrong, I love what I do and believe it to be an important role. I also like to think that I execute my responsibilities in a way that is reflective of who I am. And I know that I was selected for the position because of who I am and what I might be able to help the team accomplish.

As I zoom out a bit and think about the leader with whom I directly serve, the same is largely true for him. The office receives countless invitations for him to speak to large audiences worldwide, to engage on an individual level with seniors, peers and juniors alike, and to both give interviews and write articles for the media machine. Each initial invitation is sent to him because of the position he holds and the associated responsibilities and influence, not necessarily because of who he is. Over time, the mix of invitations may change as people begin to see him for who he is as much as for the title he temporarily holds. Likewise, for me, more people engage me for what it is they believe I may be able to help them with given my temporary position. One of the reasons I share of myself as much as I do is because I want people to see me for me, not for a job to which I am temporarily assigned, a rank I temporarily hold, or authority I temporarily have. The opportunities we get over the course of our life are a result of who we are perceived to be. Doors are opened and closed every day based on our perceived character, competence, and personality. These opportunities may be temporarily shaped by an office we hold, the authority we wield, or the power that is perceived, but that is all temporary.

There are people we keep in our life because we appreciate who they are and there are people we leverage only because of what they do. What happens when you are no longer in that seat of power, when you lose your fortune, or when you are no longer the prettiest face in the room? I know I am far from alone when I admit that I want people to see value in me for who I am and how they believe I am capable of contributing as a human being.

  • How would you respond to the request, “Please, tell me about yourself”?
  • What opportunities in life are being presented as a result of who you are?
  • Who is merely leveraging you based on the perceived authority/influence associated with the position you temporarily hold?