Written by Gretchen Vogelgesang Lester
Last week at the gym, I brought up to someone that I used to be an aerobics instructor. I briefly recounted some stories about that experience and thought sadly of the phrase “used to be”. I truly no longer consider aerobics instructor as part of my leadership identity, partly because I haven’t taught a class in over 12 years, but even more so that it just doesn’t enter into my daily activities anymore. It’s simply not an identity I "wear" anymore.
When we teach about identities and sub-identities, we discuss how students should list their current sub-identities, and how they can become more or less salient over time. But I think it is also a good exercise to revisit past identities and think about how they shaped your current identities. Just like an old broken watch might offer a new life with its parts, our past identities can offer competencies that shape our new identities.
I did not know, when I was an aerobics instructor, that I would eventually preside over a different type of classroom – but looking back, some of the things I needed for that identity are still with me. I work hard to project my voice to all my students in the room. I also look for understanding in their eyes, making sure my students are “with” me as I broach new topics. I was lucky as an aerobics instructor - I did not have to compete with the lure of social media (smart phones did not yet exist, and texting on a flip phone was excruciatingly painful). But, I did contend with side conversations, varying levels of ability and fitness, and jockeying for space and materials. I also had to continue to learn new techniques (yes, even aerobics instructors have continuing education requirements). I also had to manage feedback from paying customers. So, although the days of choosing music, creating routines, and leading a class through a challenging physical workout are over, I still put in to practice many of the competencies I acquired in the pursuit of excellence in that sub-identity.
When I started to write up this blog entry, I thought the word “discard” was a little too harsh. As researchers, we do use this terminology – we adopt and discard identities as we change and adapt throughout our lives. But to say we discard identities makes it seems like we throw out everything about that identity. Unfortunately, the synonyms for discard are equally as negative: abandon, dispose of, ditch, dump, eliminate, jettison, reject, remove, scrap, shed, etc. So perhaps instead of saying we discard of our old identities, we should say instead that we have sub-identities that have evolved into something new and different.
What previous identities had you at one time embraced but now have evolved into something new?
Last week, I had the pleasure of seeing the Broadway tour of Finding Neverland. This show is an adaptation of the 2004 movie of the same name; the story of J.M. Barrie, the creator of Peter Pan. As the story goes, J. M. Barrie was inspired by the young children he saw playing in the park one day, and created a world where boys never grow up, fight with pirates, and live with fairies. At one point in the play, J. M. Barrie and the cast participate in a number called “Play” to shake the serious actors out of their cynical take on the child’s tale. It begins with this phrase:
“Can you remember back when you were young, when all the simple things you did were so much fun? You got lost somewhere along the way, you’ve forgotten how to play, every single day.”
In our leadership development exercises, we ask our participants to create their leadership timeline from their very first memories to 20-30 years into the future. The past timeline highlights moments that stand out as formative; the future timeline is intended to create purposeful opportunities for leadership development. Some participants focus on their experiences; others note movies, books, tv shows, etc. that shifted a view of their thinking about leadership.
But what about the moments that aren’t as memorable? What about those times just playing? Pretending to be a magician, a ship’s captain, a lion tamer…or just creating games with friends to fill up time in the day? Identities slipped on and discarded as quickly as the imagination could come up with the next idea. Just simple fun. I hope everyone has those types of fun memories.
But as we grow older, we seem to forget how to play. Yes, we have more responsibility as adults, experiences have taught us self-preservation and society shapes our thoughts on what is foolish and what is logical. But perhaps we have lost too much? Perhaps not everything needs to be so serious. Perhaps we can still find opportunities for playfulness. In my opinion, one of the best attributes of multi-domain leadership is the freedom try out different leadership styles in domains other than work. In the same way children are free to try on different identities while at play; participation in other domains allows adults to also try on different leadership identities. Are there simple things you did when you were young that you can re-incorporate into your life? Can you volunteer in ways that allow you to play? Are there things you can observe that make you happy but also connect to your leadership abilities and challenges?
For me, watching musical theater is a delight. And Finding Neverland reminded me that we shouldn’t forget to play (and to give thanks for the professionals who can entrance us with stage magic!). What have you experienced lately that allows you to learn from areas outside of your work?
“Lead..Follow..or get out of the way” (George S. Patton)
Often when we discuss leadership, we think of it (as Dr. Palanski recently noted ) as one person telling others what to do. He discussed the idea of shared leadership, where the group decides together to take action. Beyond the idea of shared leadership is also the role that followers play in the leadership process. In a true leadership process, the followers are equally as important as the leaders.
A leader cannot lead without followers choosing to engage in the process. One way of looking at this is to think about different behaviors that we enact when interacting with others. Do we “claim” a leader role by speaking first, sitting at the head of the table, or volunteering to seek out a solution to a problem? Do we “claim” a follower role by offering to help when needed, or holding back in the moment because we have other responsibilities? Do we “grant” someone else the leader role by offering to help when needed? Do we “grant” someone a follower role by delegating a task for them? What about those who avoid taking a position at all?
Think back over your behaviors at work, at home, and in your community. What roles do you take in each of those domains? We’ve discussed quite a few ways to develop your leadership abilities over the past year, but let’s focus on followership for a second. Most of us must take follower roles in some areas of our lives; we are all too busy and only have a finite amount of resources to continually be in the leader position. So when we do claim a follower role, are we acting in good faith? Are we supporting our leaders to the best of our abilities?
Research on followership notes individuals may take different perspectives on the meaning of the follower role. In one view, a follower is anyone who formally or informally reports to an individual in a leadership role. The other approach, similar to what I discussed earlier, is the idea that the follower has an active and important role in the leadership process. This view moves beyond the idea of followers as sheep who blindly follow their shepherd to one where followers have an active duty to participate in the goals set out by the organization, family, team, etc. Proactive followership behaviors can include feedback-seeking, using influence tactics, taking initiative, and in some cases, breaking the rules when necessary.
Opportunities for proactive followership do depend on the types of leaders present. Some leaders feel threatened by proactive followers and would prefer a group of subordinates (word choice here is deliberate) that do not question the leaders’ actions. However, more effective leaders look to their followers to help accelerate the organization/team/community towards its goals. The latest research on followership shows numerous positive outcomes from proactive followers.
If you find that you are looking to be more proactive – at work, at home, in your community - the first step is to think about the behaviors you exhibit. Are you actively granting leadership opportunities to someone else, which is part of an engaged process, or are you just ceding leadership responsibilities? If you want to be more proactive, try discussing the vision or goals with your boss, your partner, or your community leader. Decide if you agree with that vision, and if not, ask questions and maybe pose some thoughts or creative solutions of your own. It does take time and energy, but the feeling of empowerment and active participation in the leadership process will positively impact other areas of your life.
What claiming and granting behaviors have you enacted recently?
Social scientists are increasingly using narrative research to more accurately capture the stories of the individuals we study. For leadership researchers who strive to eventually predict outcomes such as leadership emergence, leadership effectiveness, follower satisfaction, trust, and performance, narrative research allows additional insight into the stories of potential leaders. In our earlier blog about seeing leadership moments, we discussed how small moments of leading can impact our leader identity. Narratives are a way for leaders to reflect upon past and present events, and could lead to additional leadership discoveries.
In Torrill Moen’s (2006) article on the narrative approach, she recalls how another social scientist, Edward M. Bruner, highlights how narratives can relate to one’s life.
“A life lived is what actually has happened. A life experienced consists of the images, feelings, sentiments, desires, thoughts, and meanings known to the person whose life it is. A life told is a narrative or several narratives influenced by the culture conventions of telling, by the audience, and by the social context.” (Moen, 2006; p. 63).
The leadership life told includes the social aspects of leadership – others’ reactions to you as a leader can help solidify or undermine your leader identity. But only the leader knows of the experiences that drive their behaviors. Writing a narrative helps the leader to reconcile personal thoughts and beliefs with the reactions of others.
As leadership professors, we can require our students to write their own leadership narratives and to build reflection into our coursework. The challenge for working leaders is to find time to continue this process. The active nature of reflection upon a narrative allows leaders to be more mindful about the effects of their leadership behaviors. Additionally, it may uncover additional opportunities for development or patterns of behavior that should be reviewed. Consistently taking the time to reflect ensures a closer match between the life lived, the life experienced, and the life told.
So, how do you start writing your narrative? And how do you ensure it is capturing what it should capture? A good narrative relies on the following foundation:
This spring, I have asked my students to collect narratives of leaders they observe. I encourage our readers to also start writing down your leader narratives, thinking through your experiences, including the context, and taking the extra step of capturing as many voices as possible to enhance your leadership development. I think you will all find that the time you take for reflection will result in more mindful leadership emergence.
I’d like to return to an earlier topic we covered, multi-domain leadership (MDL). In earlier blogs, we describe what MDL is, the benefits of it, and the value of enrichment by applying what you learn and experience in your work, social, or community domain to another. But organizations can also encourage MDL by thinking through the different “silos” that come to exist and motivating workers to look beyond their current departments.
I recently had the pleasure of facilitating a leader identity training for an organization in the midst of a restructuring. Employees who were used to dealing with procedures and stakeholders in one manner were now being asked to change their outlook and adapt to different processes, customers, and co-workers. They were being forced to integrate their identities into a new, larger domain. It reminded me that we all, at some point, need to integrate our skill sets away from one specific functional area into a larger organizational view. When we do that, we need to look up from the work in front of us and interact with co-workers from other departments. Anyone interested in upward mobility in an organization must keep an eye on how they can attain different skills sets to continue to be successful as they get promoted. Managing people or projects requires individuals to move beyond their functional or technical skills to include people skills, budgeting expertise, or general oversight of how departments interact in a larger organization.
So, how does one gain these other experiences? The advice is similar to how we recommend enhancing leadership skills –by looking for opportunities that allow cross-pollination of ideas and by choosing to open up the landscape to which you are exposed. Does your organization have training programs for different skills sets? Is there a mentor in a different department that you can tap to allow you to learn and experience different approaches? Are there outside resources that you can leverage to gain necessary skills? One does not become a partner in a law firm, an accounting firm, a manager in a financial institution, a founder of a start-up, or a leader in an educational institution without obtaining different skills sets such as sales, fund-raising, people management, or creating a business plan. Even within the work domain, MDL can enhance your success by encouraging you to integrate new and appropriate behaviors to enable career progress. Good luck!