I used to think that identity was a Big Thing. Something to be sought through a heroic journey.
Something conferred by a king. Something important, and once taken on, relatively unchangeable.
I still believe those things. Sometimes I even think about in stark terms. What if my most important possessions, most important abilities, and most important relationships were taken away from me - what would be left? That remainder represents the fundamental me, my core identity.
True enough, and of utmost significance. But the moments that test our true significance and our core identities are rare. What about the other 99.9% of moments in life? Does identity play a role in those times as well? I think that it does.
One way to think of one’s overall identity is as a collection of sub-identities. Sub-identities are nothing more than our identities that are relevant to a particular situation or to a role that we enact. For many of us, our collection of sub-identities looks something like this:
As I write these words, my “professor” sub-identity is active, as I seek to convey information and spark thinking.
What is really interesting about sub-identities is that we put them on and take them off, sort of like an article of clothing. Sometimes they are thrust upon us, like when a parenting sub-identity becomes instantly active when a child cries out in the night. Other times, we get to choose them, like when we reach out to invite a friend to meet over a cup of coffee, thus activating our friend sub-identity.
In her book Liturgy of the Ordinary, Tish Harrison Warren makes a wonderful point about how we put on and take off identities throughout the day. She notes that on most days, we all start with the same basic identity - that of the half-asleep, half-awake person-waking-up persona, complete with tired eyes and bad breath. From there, we begin to add our other identities, putting them on and putting them off throughout the day, until we at last return to another common-to-us-all identity: the drowsy, tired person in need of rest.
So what does all of this have to do with leadership?
Well, we know at least two things about a leader identity:
1. It is chosen - even if you are in a leadership role you’d rather not have, you can still choose to view yourself as a developing leader, or not.
2. It applies to many areas of life - whereas identities like employee or parent apply to only area of life, “leader” applies to many areas. You can be a leader at work, with your family, with your friends, or in the community.
So if you desire to improve as a leader, one of the most effective ways to do so is to put on your leader identity each morning. Doing so will help you pay attention to leadership opportunities and lessons, give you the courage to try new leadership behaviors, and provide you with the wisdom to evaluate what is and is not working.
Just remember to brush your teeth, too.
Written by Rachel Clapp-Smith
People often describe really good leaders as “naturally born leaders.” No one comes from the womb leading. They learn to. But we have a tendency to use such descriptions because some people make leading “look” natural. So how do exceptional leaders get to the point where leading looks (and feels) natural? They practice – a lot! In fact, their practice is deliberate and it is frequent.
If leaders are so evidently made, why do we have a debate over whether they are born? Much research points to the conclusion that leaders are both made and born. For instance, decades of research focused on the traits that might predict leadership provides evidence that certain traits are necessary, but not sufficient, for leading. This means that you could be naturally pre-disposed to being optimistic, but do little else to hone your leadership. Your optimism is necessary for leadership, but it, alone, does not make you a leader. Another way to look at this is that while some people seem to “naturally” exude optimism, for others, it is a learned state, again, made. That is why the Both/And perspective on leadership is so important. Leaders are both made and born.
When it comes to developing as a leader, how do we possibly deal with this reality? My doctoral advisor, Bruce Avolio, framed the question of born vs. made as a ratio. What portion of your leadership is based on the tendencies that emerge from your DNA and how much is based on the experiences you’ve accumulated over your lifetime? Do you see your leadership as 90% born and 10% made? Or maybe you are 30% born and 70% made. The ratio depends on the individual and their own perspective and meaning of leadership. In fact, research would indicate that people with a growth mindset have a tendency to view their own leadership as being mostly made and only somewhat born, say, a 20/80 split. Whereas people with a fixed mindset will tend to see their leadership as mostly based on their DNA, and 80/20 split. Do you have any predictions about which one of these perspectives builds a tendency to put time into developing leadership? If you guessed the person with a growth mindset, you are absolutely correct. The irony here, is that the leaders who view leadership as something that can be learned through deliberate practice are not constrained by the “naturally-born” tendencies they have. Thus, they practice leading more and, as a result, appear more natural as leaders to us, the observers of their leadership behaviors. As for those who believe their leadership to be relatively fixed, well, chances are, they will plateau at some point in their career where the demands of their role exceed their “inherent” ability to lead. By accepting what is in our DNA and expanding the possibilities of what can be developed, great leaders are both made and born, but they spend much more time on the made part of the equation, rendering leading a much more natural activity through practice and mastery.
Finding yourself at crossroads, unsure of where to go next?
Confident in your path, but looking to continuously improve?
Interested in more research-backed information on leadership?
Feeling stuck – like you’re incredibly busy but also bored?
Needed greater integration (or maybe some clearer boundaries) between work and non-work?
If any of these ring true, you’re in the right spot!
The intersection represents the most valuable space for exploration and growth
We are university professors (Mike, Michelle, Rachel & Gretchen) who have cultivated our passion for developing better leaders in all areas of life. We each have our own stories and styles, but all work to the same goal: leadership development. Through our research, coaching, and experiences, we have discovered that the intersection represents the most valuable place for exploration and growth.
The intersection is the point where science meets practice. Where decades of research evidence is held up in real-world complex situations. Where our own intuitions and experiences can be challenged.
The intersection is the point where all areas of our lives come together – our work, our families, our communities, our selves.
The intersection is the point in which we focus on both who we are and what we do. Where we take stock of what we’re doing and what’s important to us.
The intersection is the point in which we create and implement. We create new knowledge, information, ideas, and relationships and implement both novel and tried-and-true methods.
Over the last few years, we’ve learned (or re-learned) a few things about ourselves and about what it is that we are doing through The Leadership Professors:
Taking all of this into account, we made a strategic decision to leverage our efforts into something of a spiral of development:
Clients bring us challenges and problems →
We apply our expertise and learning →
We create solutions with the client
Every competent consultant does the steps above, but we continue the spiral through our work at the intersections to:
We work at the intersection of
What to expect
In a nutshell, we are beginning to blog as a means of creating knowledge and learning together. The topics we will cover generally represent some areas of those intersections. Some entries we will share research and discuss the relevance for the practice of leadership. We will highlight interesting cases organizations and individuals of all types and discuss the lessons learned. Other times, we’ll share our personal stories – the victories and struggles on our own leadership journeys.
We're here to learn and grow together and are in the business of building people up. Thank you for joining us at the intersection! We’re excited you’re here.
Our very best,
Mike, Michelle, Rachel & Gretchen
Leadership happens everywhere and so we should not limit our opportunities to develop leadership to experiences and training programs at work. Taking a multi-domain approach involves considering connections across all areas, or domains, of our lives.
There are at least three major benefits to considering a multi-domain approach to leader development. First, we gain synergies by examining transferable skills across the connections we identify. We recently heard a great story of a leader who had been given feedback that she should work on being less emotionally reactive and defensive when her employees approach her with issues or setbacks. She noticed a connection in her “over-reaction” to her teenage sons and took the opportunity to practice being more composed both at work and at home. This practice both sped up her development and created improvements in her relationships at work and at home (i.e. it was both more efficient and effective).
In addition to transferable skills, taking a multi-domain approach helps us to grow from the ways in which areas of our lives are different. These disconnections present opportunities to expand our skills sets. Sometimes there are constraints in work that prevent us from trying out new behaviors or it simply takes too long to wait for the next stretch assignment. However, there may be opportunities to stretch ourselves outside of work. Taking on a community project or voluntary role presents unique leadership challenges. Whereas leaders in work can often motivate others through the use of rewards or punishments or simply the power of their position or title, motivating volunteers requires something very different.
Finally, considering how various aspects of our lives are connected can foster greater personal coherence and integration. This reflection often starts with noticing skills or actions, and then grows deeper focusing on values, identities, and self-awareness. Being aware of how we live out our values throughout our lives promotes greater psychological well-being. In so many ways, leader development is personal development.
Think about your first leadership experiences. Were they after your college graduation, when you launched your career? Probably not! Many individuals’ first leadership experiences have to do with playing with other kids, participating in sports teams, collaborating on artistic endeavors, or through educational attainment. We encourage our children to have a broad array of experiences – learning in schools, volunteering in their communities, and participating in family chores and experiences. These “character-building” opportunities are also leadership experiences. Such activities continue through college, as students become involved in student life, sororities and fraternities, sports, student-led groups and student government, etc. But then it seems to stop.
Colleges accept well-rounded applicants – ones that stand out due to leadership experiences. Organizations look for recruits with something special – again, leadership experience. But after joining an organization, our focus on leadership tends to be on development and training within the organization. This can make individuals reliant upon their managers to recognize their leadership potential, and some end up being left behind.
But what if we continue to treat leadership development as something that can happen anywhere – at home, in the community, and also at work? What if managers asked their employees about experiences coaching their kids’ softball team, organizing a parent-teacher fundraiser, or caring for an elderly parent? All of these experiences also require leadership expertise and can be developmental in nature. This is what multi-domain leadership (MDL) is about – tapping into the experiences we have every day and using them to help create and solidify a leader identity. The more variability we confront in everyday situations, the better we become at diagnosing which leadership competency is relevant for each experience. MDL is about creating a leadership toolkit through varied life experiences that allows us to be more effective wherever our leadership challenge lies.