Why your leadership identity matters and what to consider

July 30, 2021 | Category: Leadership

We all have an identity, a set of defining characteristics which shape how we (and others) see ourselves, but have you thought about your leadership identity?

Julie is an experienced executive, recognised as a successful manager in her functional areas of expertise. She was about to take on her first CEO role. As she thought about her new role, I asked what her leadership identity might be? It was an instinctive question but one that led to a curiosity for her (and me as her coach) to explore what leadership identity means, and what it means for Julie as the organisation new Chief Executive.

It would be fair to say that often, we are unaware of the impact we have on others.

According to psychologists Vanessa Bohns and Francis Flynn, our power to influence extends beyond the authority our job title gives us. It is not just our position that gives our requests the gravitas needed, instead we constantly influence others “through basic social processes such as conformity pressures, persuasive appeals and social norms.”

Whether you’re stepping into your first leadership position, or you have years of experience behind you, I hope this question makes you pause for thought.

Having a level of self-awareness, to know who you are and what you are like to work with will enable you to feel more confident in your approach as a leader, allowing you to positively motivate others.

A quick caveat – Leadership identity isn’t leadership style

You can read lots of articles on leadership style, but leadership identity is different. It is not about what you do as a leader, it is about who you are as that leader.

This extract from an interview with Angela Duckworth, CEO and founder of the non-profit organisation Character Lab, is a good example:

“I’ve always had the identity of someone who is, you know, “I’ll show you”. These are the words that go through my head when people tell me I can’t do something.”

In this article, Angela talks about how her upbringing has shaped her approach to life, giving her a determination, which also feeds into her leadership identity.

Academics Day, Harrison and Halpin see leadership identity as “the extent to which an individual self-defines as a leader, and considers the leader role to be a central part of who he or she is.” As you take on your leadership role, who will you be?

Three questions to ask yourself

Take some time to examine the unique qualities, talents and experiences that drive you. What are the core values you hold, and how does this shape the kind of leader you want to be? Secondly, how transparent is this to others? Your leadership identity is like your personal brand. To strengthen this, you should clearly articulate the reasons behind your choices and measure the extent to which this is understood. If someone were to ask around the room, what would you be known for? This is often an effective litmus test.

The saying that ‘actions speak louder than words’ never gets old. The 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer suggests that businesses have a unique opportunity to lead, with people more likely to trust information coming from their employer than the government. Know that people will look to you to model appropriate behaviours, and that if you don’t practice what you preach teams may disengage. Try to empathise with people and be aware of how your actions may be read by others.

After defining your leadership identity, reflect on organisational scenario. Does your approach fit within the unique environment you operate in? Professor Michelle Evans gives a good example of this in a Tedx Talk when she says, “I had formed this leader identity that I thought was important” but “our team already had its own shape and rhythm to it.” The good news is that when you take the time to examine yourself, you’ll have a high level of self-awareness. Always consult your in-built barometer, which will allow you to grow and evolve as a leader – without moving away from your core values.

Psychologists Robert Lord and Rosalie Hall say that “as leaders develop, there is a shift in focus from individual to collective level.” As you develop as a leader, your potential to influence grows, you can have an impact that affects your organisation’s “leadership knowledge, goals and structures.”

You only need to look back in your career to see examples of different leadership and the effect this had on you. So, you already know what I am about to say next. Your leadership identity will not only motivate you – by affirming your decisions – it will have a significant bearing on individuals, teams and at strategic level.

A clear leadership identity, which is authentic and sensitive to the needs of the organisation you work in, will allow you to embrace and act upon the challenges that lie ahead.


Dirk Anthony (Credit: in conversation with writer Ann Saunders)


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