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.
I recently experienced a “gold nugget” moment in education; that is, one of those moments where a single question or piece of information can change the course of a discussion and lead to important learning.
My college was hosting a small group of business club students from a local high school. There was a scheduling snafu, and the students’ scheduled team-building activity was canceled. I happened to be in the office and had an unscheduled hour, so I hurriedly pulled together some supplies and formulated a plan. I asked the students to draw a picture of “what leadership means to me” on a small dry erase board.
Being students after my own heart (and artistic ability), most of them drew stick figures. More specifically, most of them drew some version of a big stick figure telling little stick figures what to do or, for the more enlightened students, a big stick figure working alongside the little stick figures. We discussed the implications of these pictures for a few minutes, and then I asked this question:
“Yesterday, how many of you participated in the student walk out about gun violence?”
About ⅓ of the students raised their hands. I asked a few students to tell us about what happened, and they recounted a short time of remembrance couple with respectful activism. I then asked this question:
“And who was the big stick figure who organized all of this activity?”
Finally, one student spoke up, “There wasn’t a single person. Instead, it was multiple students sharing ideas and organizing. No teachers or staff were even involved.”
We then talked about how, in this particular instance, leadership was clearly present and effective, but spread among many people as they shared responsibility and influence. Sure, there are times when a big stick figure is important and effective, but not always. Thus, by finding a clear recent example of shared leadership, the students were able to broaden their perspective about the very nature of leadership. In this case, one salient counterexample to their previous understanding of leadership helped to drive learning.
This incident caused me to ponder: what are my own deeply held beliefs about leadership, and can I think of a clear counterexample to them? What about you?
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.