Forming a Leadership Identity

Leaders make demands on others, often requiring trust, sacrifice, even obedience.   Sometimes the demands initiate a productive process.  At other times, they create frustration and confusion. How often have we observed people in leadership fail because they do not connect well with their staff.  They may be smart, experienced, forceful.  When no one seems to be listening, they might talk louder, explain themselves at greater length and in many different ways, ask deputies to intervene.  To no avail. Not only aren’t people listening, they may be resisting.  Why? Because connectivity and influence require legitimacy, and somehow they don’t have it.

Where does legitimacy come from?  Position.  “I’m the boss.”  Among other things, the position at the top has cultural currency.  Leverage.  “I control your job, your salary.”  Skill and knowledge are important, especially when clearly perceived and aligned with organizational aims.  A track record of being right helps a great deal.  Honesty and consistency matter more than many leaders know.  Legitimacy requires many forms of currency working together.

In traditional societies, being at the top of the hierarchy may be enough to overcome the deficiencies of other currencies.  In modern merit-based societies, however, currency has to be earned, and it depends as much on the sense that  leadership is consistent, thoughtful, moral, and motivated by the “right” reasons as it does from position and power.

There is something about leaders who do what they say and say what they do, who are pretty much the same inside and out, that makes them trustworthy.  This quality of being yourself, even when it is hard to do, represents a kind of internal or psychological alignment, comparable to the structural alignment of effective organizations.  Let’s call this internal alignment authenticity.

Authenticity comes from a clear sense of who you are in the world: your identity.  Erik Erikson taught us how individuals form their identity, more or less clearly, more or less solidly, as they navigate their adolescent passage.  He also taught that there were a series of “identity crises” that continued to define our adult years.  The emergence of an authentic leadership identity works in this way.

Every leader develops an identity, a self image, a story that s/he tells to herself and to others that more or less unites her internal experience and her external behavior. “In order to exist in the social world with a comfortable sense of being a good, socially proper, and stable person, an individual needs to have a coherent, acceptable, and constantly revised life story.”  Lynde.  The stories are revised to better account for internal changes, new people, and new places.  As you tell the story, for instance, people respond positively and negatively to various parts, and the story teller adjusts the story to get into sync with the audience. There is nothing counterfeit about the activity.  We are social beings.  As Lynde puts it, these stories are “…created, negotiated, and exchanged.” Much of the adjustment is subconscious, but some is intentional.

To put this another way, the identity story forms a bridge between the leader and her staff.  At its best, the story links the inner person to the leadership role in a way that frees the leader to call upon her best and to call upon it often. At its worst, leadership identity is so false or inappropriate for a particular organization that it undermines even the leader’s best attempts to get things done.

Identity is not exactly character—who we are down deep and in mostly unchanging ways. It is not the part of us that is hard wired.  Identity is the person we present to both ourselves and to the world, who we and others know us to be.  Since it is both a private and public thing, identity, unlike character, is constantly shifting here and there, constantly being negotiated with those who we regularly interact with.  For those with a strong identity, the shifting is minimal.  Those with weak identities seem like chameleons.  But all identities change with context.

Among the most coherent stories about leadership identity that I have heard is that of Sister Margaret Leonard, formally the Executive Director of Project Hope, an admired and successful organization, built to care for the homeless.  Here’s how she describes the moment when she recognized herself as a leader.

About forty years ago, Sister Margaret was asked to join a leadership council. While she agreed to attend, she was a little awestruck by the other members and, at first, too shy to speak.  With time and the welcome of others, Margaret grew more comfortable and, by the end of the week’s retreat, began to speak up.  It turned out to be an exhilarating experience for her and it boosted her confidence.  She could hold her own with other leaders.  But when she returned to New York City, she “had to explain to my staff and my colleagues what it meant that I was a leader when I still didn’t completely think of myself that way.” This was a daunting task.  With a twinkle in her eye, she continued, “It just took me about six years to dispel my doubts.”

At the end of that period, though, she still didn’t feel entirely right calling or thinking of herself as a leader.  Why?  She didn’t fit the cultural imagery she had absorbed since childhood of the powerful, assertive, charismatic people—men and women—who could claim the authentic mantle of leadership.  Someone like Moses on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Then a friend brought her up short.

“Margaret,” she said, “you’re a servant of God, are you not?”

“Yes I am,” said Margaret.

“You serve the poor and homeless, do you not?”

“Yes I do.”

“And you serve the Sisters who work with you, do you not?”

“I do”

“Then you’re a servant leader, no doubt,” concluded her friend.

“That’s true. I am that,” said Margaret.

At that moment, something deep within Margaret relaxed.  Finally, the role she played, the responsibility she assumed, and the image she had of herself came together.  She no longer felt self-conscious about being a leader.  She could simply lead, without the internal static of doubt and dissonance interfering with her teaching and decisiveness.  She had come to what I call a leadership identity that fit her and aligned with the organization and culture in which she worked.

In essence, our identity is a story that says what is important in our lives.  Here’s how the historian, Drew Faust puts it: “We create ourselves out of the stories we tell about our lives, stories that impose purpose and meaning on experiences that often seem random and discontinuous.  As we scrutinize our own past in the effort to explain ourselves to ourselves, we discover—or invent—consistent motivations, characteristic patterns, fundamental values, a sense of self.  Fashioned out of memories, our stories become our identities.”

Stories of leadership identity are told and retold until they become part of the lore of an organization or political movement, so real that they define leaders to themselves and to others, so powerful that leaders, or their stories, come to embody their organizations and causes.  Thus Gandhi becomes “mother India”; During World War II, Churchill becomes the British nation and its resistance to Nazi tyranny.  And, in a lesser way, Sister Margaret Leonard became Project Hope, with its generous welcome to all comers and its gentle but fierce dedication to the empowerment of homeless and disenfranchised women.

The leadership narrative is not something one makes up out of whole thought.  It may emphasize certain things about us and not others but it is not fiction.  Leaders have to believe the narratives as deeply, maybe more deeply, than anyone else.  When leaders believe and when the narrative fits with the culture and objectives of an organization or movement, then the bridge of authenticity has been built and the leader is enabled.

 

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