There’s Power in Naming and Power in Knowing your Name

Issue 134— July 6, 2020

My cousin Elizabeth is making good use of this time of sheltering during the pandemic to dig into our family history. It was rooted in the small town of Birzai, Lithuania for hundreds of years until two world wars either killed them or dispersed them to many corners of the world. One of the most intriguing and yet exasperating parts of this exploration is getting the names right as spellings varied from language to language. Vinn became Vinh or Bein, Henne to Hannah, and even some in the same nuclear family some people spelled their last names differently.

So what is in a name anyway? Identity, Personhood. Justice. Say her name: Breonna Taylor. Say his name: George Floyd.

There’s a reason why the first getting to know you exercise I do when teaching my Nine Leadership Power Tools training is to ask participants how they got their first name.

Do you know how you got your first name? If you don’t and have the opportunity to ask a parent, stop here. Take a moment and do that. You’ll usually find out something very interesting.

Some people have powerful stories about family history, or being named for a goddess, or a movie star their mother identified with, or being a given name that combined names liked by their father and mother. Sometimes it’s simply, “Because my parents liked that name,” and that’s that.

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And sometimes a woman has chosen her name that is not her birth name, as Harriet Tubman did in shedding her birth name of Araminta to signify a rebirth that raised Tubman up from slavery’s social death.

The 2020 cohort of 50 Women Can Change the World in Journalism started off with a rocking conversation about how they got their first names.

Every time we do this “how did you get your first name” exercise, we learn so much about each other, but more importantly, we learn about ourselves.

And sometimes what we thought we knew turns out to be not exactly the story. My grandmother told me I was named for her mother, whose name, she said, was Olga. I believed this all my life, even though I could never figure out how in the world they derived Gloria from Olga.

Recently, as a result of my cousin’s genealogical sleuthing, I learned that my great grandmother’s name was probably actually Golda. I have more digging to do to figure that one out. But this I do know. Being named for a beloved ancestor, even if the story was a little wonky, always gave me a sense of history, continuity, and consequence.

Similarly, my middle name is the same as my grandmother’s and my mother’s, and I also passed it on to my daughter. The Ann line, as I call it, is a strong connector to personal history.

The point is that knowing one’s name is powerful in the deepest sense of one’s identity.

Women’s names have so often been rubbed out, left out, not credited in history. The story of Martha, known as Marty Goddard, who invented the rape kit, deserves a Pulitzer in my opinion. It’s incredible reporting by Pagan Kennedy, and it’s based on dogged investigation and a nose for finding the story within the story. It covers an abundance of issues that relate to who gets to name and who gets to claim inventions, how women’s inventions so often get credited to men, as happened to Marty Goddard, and how deep-rooted misogyny results in equally deep systemic injustice.

Chanel Miller was known only as Emily Doe during the high profile trial of the Stanford University student who sexually assaulted her. Supposedly for her protection she was given that pseudonym, but Chanel came to believe that instead, it erased her, just as the experience of being assaulted had erased her self-esteem. She proceeded to turn her trauma into an exquisitely detailed recounting that revealed her personal truth and lets us understand her as a full human being. The result is the best-selling book, Know My Name.

The name of the book itself describes Chanel Miller’s defiant point exactly. Quoting writer Toni Morrison, Miller emphasizes, “When you know your name, you should hang onto it, for unless it is noted down and remembered, it will die when you do.”

So, here are some tips for maximizing the power of naming in your life and your work.

First of all, know your own name. Know yourself, of course, is what I’m talking about. The most highly respected leaders always are those who know themselves well. They know their strengths and they know their weaknesses, so they can build on their strengths and bring in others to fill in where they know they are less capable. For example, I know that I’m strong at setting a vision and strategy, and securing the resources to make it happen, but I’m weak when it comes to establishing processes and procedures for getting the work done. I have to have on my team people who can translate vision and strategy to specific processes and tasks that can guide other individuals on the team. People who have worked with me often refer to “the Gloria in my head,” meaning they get the vision. My worst mistakes occur when I try to be somebody I’m not.

Secondly, name your business with care, for its name is its identity. It’s your first elevator pitch, your first impression, that determines how people will react to you. Choose a name with an available URL and ideally one that you can register as a trademark. When we named Take The Lead, we could tell by the way people reacted to it viscerally that it told our story in a way that attracted support and interest in our mission of gender parity. Naming creates meaning even as it describes meaning. Now, the downside of Take The Lead is that while the idea resonates, it doesn’t tell people exactly what we do. We’re still a work in progress. Suggestions appreciated.

Thirdly, name your projects and products with equal care. The story you tell with the name of a project helps people understand their roles. It should always tie in with your mission in some way. That infuses what may be routine work with meaning. It inspires people to take pride in their work. It helps them to understand how their work fits into the whole, and why their diligence and attention to quality work inures to their own benefit, as well as the benefit of the company. It also motivates teamwork and a sense of belonging to the team and the organization.

Depending upon the nature of what you’re trying to achieve, you can elevate your team’s aspirations by associating a project with a relevant mythical figure, an animal, or perhaps a “shero” or hero. For example, some efforts to get more girls into STEM fields take the name of mathematician Ada Lovelace. Lovelace, whose algorithms underlie computer programming as we know it today, is of course yet another woman whose work was attributed to a man with whom she worked at the time, and I am really glad to see her name resuscitated, so I’m particularly glad to speak her name here.

Use your power of naming and start with knowing the power of your own name.

You can listen to more thoughts about the power of names and naming on my Power to You podcast.

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