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.