Hey Everyday Leader,What Pervades Your Identity?

[I am going to write about Martin Luther King, Jr. next week.]

My friend Berke’ Brown shared some psychological research that stuck with me. It showed how having multiple identities strengthens a person’s psychological resilience. So, for example, if one identities as an athlete, a lesbian and a humanitarian; and also identifies as a Detroiter, a physician, a wife and a Jew she gains a woven quality, like a rope strengthened by many strands. So, if her athletic career or even her marriage ended, she would still have other fibers of identity woven through her existence.

What are YOUR identities? And which are most pervasive? I’d like to share one strand of mine, one that is thick and runs all through me. And then I want to connect it to the most unseen yet pervasive strand of who I am, which I believe is pervasively and fundamentally also who you are.

First, I am “Jennifer’s husband.” I have been that for 35 years, from that magical time in Cambridge, Mass, when I was first immersed in love and connection. Our shared identity has been wonderful and empowering, as when I leapt on the bed of our 70th floor in the Westin Hotel the night she was elected Governor of Michigan in 2002. 

Our melded identities have also been problematic. I was an ambitious and egoic man, and at times I felt eclipsed by her, disappeared into the shadows of her grandeur and light. Some of my cherished inner identities – as smart, politically astute, and maybe even a little charismatic, for example – seemed to shrink while I stood next to her.  My identity as Jennifer’s husband also allowed me to outgrow my ego and lead with my best self; thus, when early on I quit my business and my own vocational path to serve her identity and mission – because she was “we,” at the very core of “me.”  I did that gladly, freely, even proudly, and never regretted it. When she wrote a memoir, we co-wrote it.  Her political work, our family work, and my personal journey were my story as well as her story.  It was our story.  In 2011, after her first 12 years of public service, we each and both had to disentangle our identities from our titles, our wins, losses and sacrifices, and from each other. . . and start again.

I’m not sure how we became one of “those” couples, but we don’t just finish each other’s thoughts; we each think a thought and are unsurprised when, before we have opened our mouth, the other begins to say it as their thought. She is such a pervasive part of me, that the thought of losing her (my dark Irish soul shows forth here) triggers every old trauma and loss. And terror grips and shivers me.

so I love you because I know no other way than this:
where I does not exist, nor you,
so close that your hand on my chest is my hand,
so close that your eyes close as I fall asleep.

Pablo Neruda, Sonnet XVII

I write all this, because “we” begin a new chapter with her nomination as Secretary of Energy.  Twenty years after her first foray into public service and public exposure, we start again. One thing is not so different: I am identified with her (even more so, if that is possible).  And so, I am over the moon with joy that she has this utter dream job of service that aligns with all her experience, expertise and passion. I am also clearer about my independent identity(ies), especially as teacher, thinker, and most of all caring coach. This makes me feel like I can let go of comparisons, jealousy, and my reflected smallness.  I hope only for her success, and boy does that feel clean and wonderful!

This is one guy’s story of the microcosm of identity, of the need to find one’s own calling in order to fully support another’s.  I hope you find some kernel in this self-ish story. But I am even more struck by the macrocosm. And here is what I believe is our – mine, hers and your – Shared Identity.

Jennifer has been thinking, connecting and preparing prior to her hearings and hoped-for confirmation. She is looking beyond partisan identities to look for common ground. Some will identify as Rs while she is a D.  But there is a common identity she shares with those from states where people depend for work, for example, on coal or oil, and are threatened by wind and solar.  She can feel their pain, from having served in Michigan where people’s manufacturing jobs were threatened by global competition and technology.  Change is hard for all of us, especially when our identities as breadwinners and contributors is threatened existentially. Hopefully, together these policy makers can find a way forward that doesn’t leave people behind. But this whole blog is really targeted at this Common Ground of Identity, which ought give us hope but also determination.

Fewer and fewer people are climate deniers. The ultimate common ground of identity is the common GROUND of our identity, the earth we all share. Sure, our strands of identity run blue or red, pro-life or pro-choice; Christian, Jew, Muslim or atheist. And for many of us – the right wing radicals and the long-suffering African Americans included – our identities are tied up in the American Experiment. It is why last week’s takeover felt so personally painful and terrifying. But one identity is yet more powerful.  Our very physical existence depends on this ground, this planet, this air and this water. You are nothing without it. I am nothing without it. It is an undeniable globe-alism. As Biden strives for unity amidst the discord, I hope we can all remember our core identity, on which we depend for every step and every breath we take. We have work to do in the microcosms of our homes, in our identities and our civic politics, and in our personal and political stewardship of this planet.  May we all 

Lead with our best self!


  • It is such a joy to work with you Dan, and a true inspiration to spend my first years of marriage and now parenthood with the bright light of you two as a shining example. Thank you always for your generosity in sharing, humble reflections, and publicly big LOVE for Jennifer and your family! Michael and I are grateful for you all. 🙂

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