Why a Leader Identity Narrative Matters
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 Rachel Clapp-Smith
Image by Polly Clapp
My grandmother passed away yesterday. As many families do at the time of loss, my family got together to remember, start the process of grieving, and reflect on the mark my grandmother made on the world. Whether we are intentional or not of making a mark on the world, we invariably do. There are so many wonderful qualities about my grandmother – she was kind, brave, self-determined, strong willed, and always friendly. She never wanted to be a bother to others and she didn’t let adversity slow her down. In fact, the day before she died, she stopped breathing for a little bit. But then she started breathing again, came back to, and went to lunch. That was simply the type of women she was, not be let a moment of death slow her down her keep her from lunch.
When I first started to study leadership formally, that is, in business school, and I was asked to think of a leader who inspired me, Grandma always came to mind. I never knew if it was cliché to think of my grandmother as an influential leader or, worse, sometimes I didn’t really understand why I felt influenced by her. But I did always see her as someone whose behavior I wanted to model. You see, she always had the respect of others because she always respected others. She never demanded trust or respect, but always earned it through integrity and relatedness to humanity.
As much as I want to tell you more about what an amazing women she was, the true point of this blog post is to reflect on our futures and our ends. Many leadership consultants will take clients through an epitaph exercise, in which they project on how they would like to be remembered. As kitschy as this may seem, in moments of loss, you can’t help but be moved by the legacy some people leave behind, how fondly they are remembered. It is years of consistent behavior that build these legacies and most often, they are projected onto many domains, not just work. I raise this domain orientation, because at mid-life where I sit at the moment, I seem to be thinking much more about how I can have an impact at work, but at life’s end, will that really matter? Will I be comfortable hearing people I worked with fondly remembering what I did for the organization at the expense of my kids and grandkids reflecting on how little they knew me, how successful I was at work, how much stress I brought home, and the family sacrifices I made for my career success? No, that doesn’t appeal to me. So, when I think about my leadership and the mark I will make on the world, in which domains is my mark the most important to me? By seeing how my many domains are integrated, it becomes easier for me to see how what I value in my work domain can enrich what I value in my family and community domains.
What do you want your legacy to be? How will your domains remember you?
Have you ever wondered if the leader you see in yourself is the leader others see? There are a host of theories I could regale you with to explain how and why we come to see ourselves as certain types of leaders. However, on the very basic level, the question of finding congruence in how we see ourselves and how others see us is a matter of self-awareness. The most important piece about becoming self-aware is getting feedback. Many organizations implement systems such as 360 assessments and annual reviews as mechanisms to provide feedback. Sounds like a good idea, right?
Well, the problem is that organizations do a good job with building the structures, but a terrible job at the very human element of the feedback loop – how to craft feedback in a developmental way, how to absorb feedback that may not always be positive, and how to turn such feedback into actionable items for improvement. If you are human like me, your gut reaction to feedback might be dread in anticipation of feedback and sulking if it is negative. Because we all feel this way, we have a tendency to give positive feedback, which is nice to have something reaffirm how great we are, but not always developmental, because it may make us think that everything we do is just fine. The truth is, we all have room for improvement.
I might suggest at this point that we all just suck it up and learn how to process feedback so that we can turn it into something positive. This isn’t bad advice and I would recommend training yourself to use a learner mindset in receiving feedback about how you lead. But this blog post is about how to get really honest and complete feedback. When you want to hear the hard news, who do you turn to? The people who know you well, who support you, and who can be honest with you. In short, where strong relationships exist, so, too, does honest feedback.
Because of this, it is almost silly to use only 360 degree feedback, i.e., only in the workplace. With 1080 degree feedback, that workplace information can be augmented by family and friends, and members of our community domain (volunteer organization, church group, sports club, etc.). This gives leaders a panoramic view in high definition. When the leader they see is not the leader others see, the 1080 view will make it clear why, because the feedback is more complete and in some areas, likely more honest.
How often do you ask your friends and family about how they see you lead? We have evidence from our research that the way they see you lead has an awful lot to do with the way you see yourself lead. Furthermore, our research shows that the more your friends and family acknowledge you as a leader, the more effectively you lead at work.
There’s a lot of power in 1080 feedback. Are you ready for it?
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.
Part 3: Coping with Obstacles
It’s the second week of January and you are back to the grind. All the hope you felt on January 1 from new “you” that would mark this year has deflated. The new goals are already forgotten, the wonderful implementation plan has not worked. So, now what?
This is a very common experience and the people who make it out of the woods in this difficult phase usually do because they have a coping plan. The coping plan is a strategy to overcome obstacles, both seen and unseen, and, it is quite similar to action plan in Part 2 in this series. If one must be intentional about practicing leadership, one must be equally deliberate about overcoming obstacles. Again, the video from Bite Size Psych can help (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zLrd9mybAXI), but first we need to do some reflecting…
Identify Potential Obstacles
Before we can determine how to cope with obstacles, we need to identify what they might be. We know ourselves better than anyone and if we take honest look at how we stand in our own way, this might be a good starting point. We are not our only enemies, but we can at least control the obstacles we create for ourselves. So, let’s start there.
If my goal is to listen more intently to my teammates, my children, and my husband, what are some of the obstacles that I could anticipate?
And the external obstacles are also helpful to anticipate:
As you can see, there any number of obstacles that can stand in the way of our best intentions. A coping strategy might be:
“IF I feel rushed and lack time to listen, THEN I will tell my colleague/child/spouse that I really do want to hear the whole story and will need to set aside a time later in the day for it AND then schedule that time.”
Dealing with Unanticipated Obstacles
It would be nice if we could anticipate all obstacles, but, of course, that is unrealistic. The coping plan might need to happen in retrospect for unanticipated obstacles, but we also need to be mindful enough to see these obstacles and know we need to devise a work-around.
What obstacles have you already ran into? How can you create coping plans to work through obstacles when they inevitably arise?
Part 2: It’s About Being Intentional
Part 1 of this series was about setting leadership development goals in the New Year for successful implementation. First, the goal needs to be framed appropriately – an approach goal that is specific, time-bound, and measurable. But goals don’t magically occur once set, they need an action plan, an implementation intention.
One great way to get the gist of this is from a 4-minute video by Bite Size Psych (There’s a link in our Resources page under Implementation Intentions. But to investigate it even more, look into the research on deliberate practice by K. Anders Ericsson .
What this research tells us that we can gain expertise in just about anything by being very deliberate, or intentional, about how we practice it. So, setting specific goals is a starting point to identifying what to practice when comes to leadership development, and with this post we will explore how to deliberately practice leadership behaviors. We need an action plan and one that cues us to utilize a new behavior. The easiest way to do this, is to create some If/Then statements: “if it is 8am on Monday, then I will send three emails to colleagues with positive feedback.” The IF provides the cue, the THEN makes very clear what will happen.
The most interesting piece about this process is that it focuses on small changes, rather than grandiose, yet insurmountable changes. Deliberate practice is about incremental change, not the big bang of suddenly being a completely different person (which is quite unrealistic), rather, taking an incremental and intentional approach to changing the way one leads, or, perhaps more accurately, aligning one’s leader behaviors with one’s leader identity narrative. In other words, become the leader we want to be is not a rapid change from one day to the next, but when we are deliberate and intentional about making incremental changes, we evolve into our ideal over time.
What small change will you make in your leading behaviors that gets you closer to your leadership goals?
Part 1: Make it an Approach Goal
It’s now that time of year when we anticipate a new beginning, a new year to start fresh on the things that we know we should or want to do or be, but up until now we just haven’t had the time, energy, or motivation. A new beginning gives us hope because it seems like a natural starting point for making a change. The only problem is that most good intentions remain intentions and very rarely sustained action – proverbial New Year’s resolution that works for about a week and the rest of the year is back to same old habits.
As you are thinking about the changes you want to make in the New Year, we encourage you to think about the type of leader you want to be and what small changes you can intentionally practice to reach that goal. Changes are easiest when goals have certain characteristics, there is an action plan for achieving goals, and a coping plan for overcoming anticipated obstacles.
Frame Goals as Approach Goals
Most people I know have heard about SMART goals and when I mention the word, they usually say “yeah, yeah, SMART goals,” in a very knowing and “don’t bother me with something basic” tone. And yet, when they set their goals, they are anything but SMART – vague, unclear, not time-bound, and doomed to fail. So, step one is to set a goal that is specific enough that you know what you are trying to accomplish, you know how it look when it is completed, and you know when it will be accomplished. When it comes to leadership development goals, this can be tricky because leadership is a life-long journey, so you never truly reach a destination per se and measuring, therefore, is similarly tricky. But, you can put in horizons for yourself, that give you evidence that you are making progress. An example might be: “to effectively use inspirational motivation tactics once a week for the next 6 months, measured by feedback from teammates and mentors.”
See how that is time-bound, a specific behavior, and a measurable? Now, the other key to setting a good goal, which is often glossed over, is how the goal is framed. Usually we have an implicit idea of what we want to change, but articulating it into an actionable goal is challenging. The hardest goal to reach is one that avoids a particular behavior: quit smoking, stop being negative, stop interrupting people. Avoidance goals are impossible to reach, because at what point have you successfully stopped being negative, for example? When you go one day without a negative comment? What if something negative creeps in the next day? Therefore, it is much easier to approach new and positive behaviors: make 3 positive comments each day. That’s a behavior a that is easy to accomplish, and we can celebrate it when we do.
Reflecting on the Past, Present, and Future
At this time of year, I often think about what a genius Charles Dickens was. Chances are that in December of 1843, he was not intending to create a story that would serve as an annual intervention to spark reflection and introspection, but its ubiquity has achieved just that. People who have never read the original novel know the story. I highly recommend reading it!
So why are we so drawn to this story? It has to do with what the story accomplishes. Scrooge transforms his identity in a single night. Wow! Who does that? No one. But, figuratively, it can be done. People can transform from mean, miserly, and grouchy to generous, joyous, and kind. How? Through reflection. That’s how transformative reflection can be. But most of us find it difficult and time consuming. It’s difficult because we have to face the aspects of our character for which we are not proud. It can be painful to accept that we have hurt people or not been there for family and friends when they needed us the most, or that we played political games with a co-worker. But our ghosts don’t only bring the negative to our consciousness, they also bring the positive. Furthermore, reflection is not merely an act of thinking about our own behavior, but also considering the influence of our behavior on others. Let’s think about Scrooge’s past, present, and future for himself and his stakeholders.
When Scrooge looks back on his past, he sees many layers and many emotions. A sister who he loved, and he is reminded of how cold he had been to his nephew earlier that day (family domain), a former boss, Fezziwig, who he admired for his good humor and ability to bring joy to others with only small financial gestures (work domain). He is also reminded of the time when he chose work over his fiancé, the turning point at which he became a lonely man. In this reflection we see role models, difficult decisions, joy, regret, loss, gain, etc.
When Scrooge considers his present, he reflects on how others see him, and the prognosis is disturbing. Bob Cratchet’s family is happy, despite their ailing son, Tim, and the lack of funds to make a proper holiday meal or to get proper healthcare for Tim. They are joyous to be together, but have no kind words for Mr. Scrooge in their holiday toast. Similarly, his nephew and his guests poke fun at Scrooge and his miserly ways, laughing, and yet, feeling sad for Scrooge.
Finally, upon considering the possible future for himself and that of the Cratchet family, Scrooge realizes that he has the resources and power to adjust the future. What he does in the present can change the possible future. So, what does he do? He transforms his identity. He realizes there is still time to save Tim and himself. In short, as a leader, Scrooge sat on the sidelines and took care of no one, not even himself. But, after reflecting on his past, the present of others, and glimpsing into the future, he realized he could lead in very different ways and have a positive impact.
Does reflection create such extreme changes in people? Well, no. It takes time. All of us have a story and most of us want it to have a happy ending. But we have to face our ghosts, both good and bad, to build an accurate narrative. What’s your Christmas Carol? What transformation will you make this season?
Written by Rachel Clapp-Smith
Photo by William Bout
In the “barbaric yawp” post, we discussed how awareness of small moments of leading can have big effects on how we make sense of our own leadership. In this second part of the ‘making sense of leadership” series, we will unpack the first step in this sensemaking process: seeing opportunities to lead and develop leadership.
Often, we are triggered to lead when we see a moment that is familiar, which can come in the form of having had a similar experience in a different domain of life, yet, the situation and requisite behavior to lead is familiar. An example might be that you have to motivate people in your volunteer organization all the time by inspiring them. Your work might call for similar leading behaviors to motivate your subordinates. In these moments, our internal thought process is that the moment is connected to other past successes in leading and all we have to do is behave just as we have in the past in similar situations in order to influence. Such moments we label “noticing connections,” and while these are great moments for us to claim leadership, rarely do they challenge us to develop into more complex leaders with broader skill sets. In short, what we have always done always works, so we keep doing the same thing. A connection.
But people tend to develop and grow when they are challenged. Leaders are no exception. When people lead in many domains, i.e., at work, with friends, with family, in the community, the demands for leading may differ. When a person uses the same leading behaviors with family or in the community as at work, sometimes those behaviors are ineffective. These become head-scratchers for the leader – how is it that I’m so effective influencing change at work, but I can’t get anywhere convincing my child to do his homework? In these moments, the leader is seeing a disconnection.
Disconnections often come in the form of conflict, challenges, and in some instances, they can be quite profound. As an example, one of our students described a disconnection when he realized that his organization valued a certain leadership style: aggressive, abrasive, and at times, abusive. The student had adapted his leadership to fit into the organization’s culture, and had been very successful there as a result. He had been promoted a few times and was constantly praised by his supervisor. However, feedback from other life domains identified that this abusive manner of leading was spilling over to where it did not belong, namely, in the family domain. By seeing this disconnection, our student became more mindful and deliberate about his leadership behaviors. The manner by which he was triggered to reflect based on this disconnection is the topic of the next post in the making sense of leadership series. Take a look at your own leadership in the domains of your life. Do you see connections? And how about disconnections?
Part 1 of Making Sense of Leadership Moments: Intro to Barbaric Yawps
When I teach leadership to my undergraduate students, they are very quick to apply a theory of leadership in vague terms. When I show Robin Williams as the poetry teacher in Dead Poet’s Society, my students spew academic terms: he’s being transformational by using inspirational motivation or individualized consideration. But these are terms that remain academic and somewhat meaningless to my students until we pick apart the small, micro-moments of leading.
Moment by moment, we relive Ethan Hawk yawping, first as an uncomfortable mouse, then slightly louder yet just as uncomfortable, until Robin Williams pushes him to yawp like a true barbarian. Where Robin Williams stands, the body language he uses, the words that show empathy, yet challenge Ethan Hawk. These details we try to become more aware of, to see the micro-moments, so we can understand how the leader/follower interaction occurs. We want to get at the core of moments that truly influence, that bring about change in attitudes or behavior.
Why do I ask my students to seemingly split hairs when it comes to understanding what is happening in each moment? Well, it helps to think about the choices leaders make about how to behave, out of the many ways they can influence. Leading is nothing more than standing in certain spots, using certain words, conveying certain emotions, in the attempt to influence someone or some outcome. In academic terms, we call these many, micro-behaviors acts of claiming leadership. Such acts are effective when others grant us the leadership, or, they simply follow.
So, when do leaders decide to lead? How do they assess their effectiveness in leading? And, the ultimate question, how do these moments accumulate to build a competent leader in many situations? To answer these questions, we look at the process people use for making sense of leading and incorporating that sense into future claims for leadership. In very basic terms, the process involves seeing, understanding, being, and doing. It probably comes as no surprise that we also have more academic labels for these, but the basic gist is the same. In a series of blog posts, we will break down each of these, so check these out, keep practicing your barbaric yawps, and let’s turn each small act of leading into a profound moment of influencing others.