(Originally published in Danish, September 2021)
When you step into the leadership role, the way others see you changes. There will be expectations of you having a clear idea of where the company or department is headed. People expect you to be on top and have the energy for and be engaged in the task. They expect you to act instead of just being passive both in regard to specific subject-matter issues and conflicts in the department. Whether you step into the role, make it your own and unfold it is what we call a question of taking on a leadership identity, i.e. you starting to see yourself as a leader and acting like one.
In the world of psychology, we define identity in many ways. However, the general notion is that traits, characteristics and skills distinguish the individual from others. Identity refers to the different meanings linked to the individuals by the individuals themselves and by others (Gecas, 1982). Identities are assigned and confirmed in social interactions with others and can change over time (DeRue & Ashford, 2010); however, some identities will most often be more central to a person’s overall self-definition than others and will thus be deeper embedded in that person’s social actions (Ashforth & Johnson, 2001).
In a sense, leadership identity is thus something you are assigned when interacting with your employees, managers and business partners. However, it is also something you actively choose – i.e. a conscious choice of how you relate to and fill your role as a leader.
This article is intended to provide insight into how you as a leader can work with your identity – your leadership identity – in an attempt to become a more authentic, relevant and impactful leader.
Leadership identity is crucial to how a leader works and succeeds with different tasks. The good news is that you can work on it, adjust it and refine it throughout your career.
Leaders usually have a history as professionals, which is often the foundation for their work as leaders of employees with the same professional background. We all know the engineer who became head of his colleagues at a consultancy or the schoolteacher who became headmaster. The leadership role is often closely linked to a professional competency. Some leaders are to a greater extent than others able to move away from their professional background and towards a strong leadership identity. This is interesting because research suggests that the extent to which you understand yourself as a leader is crucial to how you act in this role (Grøn, Bro & Andersen, 2020).
The stronger the leadership identity a leader experiences having, the more vision management the leader exercises. A strong leadership identity is thus an advantage when the leader needs to get a helicopter view and work with visions, strategy and long-term goals (Grøn, Bro & Andersen, 2020). As a leader, there will always be situations, projects and tasks that call for more professional leadership and a strong professional identity, e.g. the engineer who manages to lead professionally on a large strategic construction project. However, it is important for the engineer in question not to get so caught up in the professional challenge that he or she unknowingly blurs the leadership identity. Here, it is a strength that you as a leader can complement and balance the two identities so that you, in addition to being able to influence the level of professionalism, are still aware of and manage to lift yourself up and take general responsibility.
In our view, leadership identity is not about the leader being more concise, framing and managing. It may be the right thing to do in some situations; however, in other situations, it may be the right thing to be more facilitating, supportive and give space to others. Therefore, it is very much about you looking at your task, people and organisation and pragmatically taking on the task of doing what is required, thereby growing in and with the task you are to solve. For the same reason, leadership identity is not static. On the contrary, it can be actively developed. In other words, you can grow with the leadership role and gain a stronger leadership identity over time. Thus, leadership is something you need to work on and practise.
Leadership identity is also about how you view the relations surrounding you in your own department as well as in relation to business partners in the organisation or among clients. As we all know, work relations vary. Some are close and constructive. Others are distant and more difficult. Sometimes, uncertainty or maybe even conflicts arise. There can be several explanations for how these relations have become bad or less constructive, and sometimes it is indeed because the others have done something or have failed to do something, and that it is the reason for the disagreement or conflict.
However, as a leader, the reason for the conflict does not matter. As a leader, you always have to look at it as a challenge that needs to be addressed. It might require you to raise the question in the presence of everyone. Or it may require you to invite yourself for a cup of coffee to talk about this and that. Or it may require you to almost invisibly start being more friendly, supportive and listening in your approach to the other person. Even if it is out of your comfort zone to begin with. What matters is that you as a leader cannot just leave it alone if it is important to your department or business.
Leadership identity is also about making the decisions that need to be made. Perhaps a project needs to be shut down or an employee needs to be terminated. Or perhaps an employee needs to be promoted and challenged with new tasks. It is not necessarily you as a leader who needs to make the decisions yourself in private. Leadership identity is not about returning to the old ideal about the leader hero who stood on the bridge in stormy weather and took it upon him- or herself to lead the ship through the stormy night. On the contrary, it is about you as a leader ensuring that decisions are made. Whoever makes the decision is thus secondary as long as the decision is made.
We sometimes talk about leaders always having two main tasks. One of them is to solve the task at hand. This means getting projects started, holding client meetings or ensuring that budget follow-up is carried out etc. We call this task 1. The other task is to ensure that while we solve task 1, the department, unit, team and individual become stronger, more skilled and more competent. We call this task 2. When we stress that it must take place at the same time, it is for the simple reason that task 1 is almost always prioritised higher than task 2 and that task 2 is often postponed to a day when we have more time. And when will that day be? So, as a leader, you need to constantly have an eye for how to work in a way that lets you solve the task while simultaneously challenging an employee to extend beyond what they usually do or challenging the team’s way of working together, making the team even stronger so that you can continue to solve the tasks smarter and better. Having an eye for task 2 and prioritising it in everyday life is key to taking on a leadership identity.
So how can you work on developing your leadership identity? Well, basically, you can say that your leadership identity must be found and unfolded at the intersection of the task and the demands it places on you as a leader and your own considerations about what kind of leader you can and want to be.
One place to start is therefore for you to take a look at the task. This means looking at what your department needs, what the collaboration with your managers or your clients demands from you, and how you can work on strengthening what is needed. Specifically, this can be done by you taking a look at tasks, employees and client relations and considering what is needed from you as a leader.
Another starting point could be to look at what many people today call your personal leadership foundation. That is, a definition of why you lead, who you want to be as a leader, and how you want to approach the task as a leader. What we are talking about here are the values and behaviour that should act as a guiding star for you in your leadership practice. Naturally, the ability to reflect and evaluate means a lot here. If having such a defining task on your own is difficult, it can be an advantage to get help from others.
With your own leadership foundation in place, you create good conditions for being at ease as a leader. That is, a leader who, if necessary, can turn up either the leadership identity or the professional identity, depending on what the context and situation call for. When you are clear about your leadership foundation, it can increase your adaptability and help you get the most out of the different situations and circumstances that you as a leader find yourself in at any given time.
The key is to realise that taking on your leadership identity is about filling the leadership role and taking on the task of “adding to the situation what is needed to succeed” – regardless of whether the situation is a task that has reached a deadlock, a conflict or a crisis in the department or a business or client relationship that is not working optimally.
Taking on your leadership identity does not always make it easier to be a leader. But it works better, and it creates more impact!
Ashforth, B. E., & Johnson, S. A. (2001). Which hat to wear? The relative salience of multiple identities in organizational contexts. In M. A. Hogg & D. J. Terry (Eds.), Social identity processes in organizational contexts (pp. 31-48). Philadelphia, PA: Psychology Press.
DeRue, D. S., & Ashford, S. J. (2010). Who will lead and who will follow? A social process of leadership identity construction in organizations. Academy of Management Review, 35(4), 627-647. Briarcliff Manor, NY: Academy of Management.
Gecas, V. (1982). The Self-Concept. Annual Review of Sociology, 8, 1-33. San Mateo, CA: Annual Review.
Grøn, C. H., Bro, L. L., & Andersen, L. B. (2020). Public managers’ leadership identity: concept, causes, and consequences. Public Management Review, 22(11), 1696-1716. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, Inc.
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