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?
Why a Leader Identity Narrative Matters
Written by Rachel Clapp-Smith
Every semester, we ask our students to write a leadership narrative as their final project for the course. It’s a fairly involved process of multiple reflection points that we provide over the course of the semester so that by the end, they should have a fairly good sense about how they see themselves and how their leadership aligns with the multiple domains in which they lead.
In my instructions, I ask the students to pull into the narrative “the good, the bad, and the ugly” of their leadership, because I want the narrative to be complete, as they are a leader, not only as they want to be. Of course, my use of the language comes from an article written by Mats Alvesson and Stefan Sveningsson, two professor at Lund University in Sweden. Their article is titled “Good Visions, Bad Micro-management, and Ugly Ambiguity,” and describes the contradiction in how leaders see themselves (good visions) versus how they actual describe their leadership behavior (Bad micro-management). In their research in a knowledge intensive firm, they found that managers described good leadership as being strategic and visionary and bad leadership as being micromanaging and directive. And yet, when asked to describe the behaviors they use to lead, the managers described behaviors that aligned with their descriptions of bad leadership. Finally, the ugly ambiguity represents the reality that our hopes of leadership in making a well-ordered environment, where it is clear what needs to be done, who needs to do it, and how leadership affects it, is simply not possible. Leadership, in reality, is messy.
We try to get our students to face these realities – leadership is messy and building a leader identity is hard work, because it requires facing these uncomfortable realities that often we behave as bad leaders, despite what we believe about good leadership.
We were asked recently to explain the proverbial “so what?” about our research (a question that academics like to ask each other). It’s nice to have a leadership story about yourself, but so what? Why does it matter? Well, if it is an honest story, that acknowledges the good, bad, and the ugly, then it helps students know where they need to focus their development as a leader. If I think good leadership is about listening, but in my practice I cut people off or don’t really hear what they are trying to say, then I am not acting like the leader I think I should be, and I have a lot of work to do. But I also then know what I need to work on. And that is why a leader identity narrative matters. It helps us see the path to becoming the leader that will be successful in the many contexts where we lead.
Written by Michelle Hammond
Memes that illustrate what various people think have been popping up all over the place for just about every occupation under the sun. Why have they become so popular? They are fun. They make us laugh. But they also reveal some truth. They present an opportunity to take a light-hearted approach to a few things that are rather deep.
1) Big differences can harm relationships. We might laugh that our spouse thinks we’re lounging on the beach when we’re really buried in a pile of papers, but those misconceptions, when left to fester can create real rifts in our relationships. While it might not be possible for everyone to have a complete understanding of what everyone else is doing, working towards clarification with those who matter most can be extremely useful. What your boss thinks you do matters. What your co-workers think you do matters. What your family thinks you do matters. Take some time to see yourselves through the eyes of others. 360-degree feedback is a great way to do this – in work, in the community, and at home. And most importantly use that information to spark meaningful discussions about expectations, commitments, and opportunities to learn and grow.
2) They create a shared sense of identity for those who share that occupation. Knowing that I have a shared experience of being misunderstood a “college professor with the summers off” strengthens my tie with other college professors as we examine our jam-packed summer to do list.
3) They highlight that our identities are both personally and socially influenced. For many, the link between what others think we do, and who others think we are is tight. Our own sense of identity - who we are, what we do, and our value - is in part, determined by what other people think of us. Of course, the degree to which others influences our sense of self varies from person to person and across our life stages, but undeniably, our identity is both personally and socially influenced. We need to work towards a more accurate understanding of how others view what we do and how we come across as well a solid sense of who we are that doesn’t fluctuate based on others’ changing perceptions.
What do others think you do?
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?
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.
Written by Rachel Clapp-Smith
Image by Tyler Smith
We suggest in our research that a person’s leader identity, i.e., how one sees him- or herself as a leader, is multi-layered and stems from three different levels: individual, relational, and collective. We are not the only leadership professors to suggest this, in fact, there’s a rich area of literature and research focused on this very concept. But, if you are like most people we talk to, these academic labels don’t mean much until we explain. So, let me explain…
Think of yourself as an individual embedded in a family or group of friends, which is embedded in a community, school, or organization. You might consider an image of a small circle inside a larger circle, inside yet a larger circle. Each circle is a level or layer of identity. As an individual, you have certain personal characteristics that you bring to the table as a leader: you might be extroverted, charismatic, trustworthy, optimistic, or any other trait, value, or strength that you individually possess. That is your individual level of your leader identity.
The next circle is the relational layer. The identities you have here only exist because of your relationship to another person. You may say “I am a parent,” which is an identity that is only possible because you have a child and only came into existence for you on the day your first child was born. Up until then, that particular identity did not exist for you (although it may have been a future planned identity, but that is entirely different, and worth it’s on blog post).
The third level of leader identity is the collective layer. This means we see ourselves as members of groups, and our membership to those groups are particularly important to our sense of self as a leader. For instance, I am a New Englander, and although I do not currently live in New England, this membership is nonetheless very strong in how I see myself as a leader. I know that much of how I act and think stems directly from my identification with New England. Furthermore, when the Patriots are in the Super Bowl, my identification with New England requires that I lead this particular collective in my area in a way that is representative of the collective – I connect the local collective by hosting a party with lobster rolls, clam chowder, and whoopie pies (and you are invited if you live near me and are from New England).
See how powerful these layers of leader identity can be? Each one is an important part of who we are and how we lead. Everyone is an individual, with relationships, embedded in collectives. The magic is in understanding how these many layers contribute to who we are as leaders. Take a moment to think about each layer and write down the pieces of each layer that are the most influential in how you see yourself as a leader.
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.