Understanding leadership identity: Who are you as a leader?

Written by Jill Pennington, Vice President, International Consulting

In 2024, nearly half the globe will head to the polls in at least 64 countries, shining a spotlight on leadership worldwide. With a growing disenchantment towards political leaders, there is a palpable sense that those in government or wanting to govern are no longer the type of leaders we need to navigate a turbulent world. To what extent is this call for a different style of leadership reflected in corporate organisations?

Leadership enters a new era

Talogy’s international research revealed that organisations are calling for a leadership reset. Organisations told us that the pressure to improve performance, deliver greater value for stakeholders, and create sustainable growth requires a different type of leader. Coupled with changing employee expectations and a context of global instability, many organisations we surveyed talked about the need for leaders who are more emotionally intelligent and who can work collaboratively across organisations.

Organisations also talked about the complexity of problems facing leaders and how leaders cannot be expected to know all the answers. This requires a new breed of leaders who are humble enough to see their role as facilitating and unleashing the collective energy, passion, and capabilities of people around them. Additionally, these leaders need to be skilled at solving complex problems through systemic thinking and collaboration.

Our research identified a need to shift to more people-centred leadership with leaders as coaches rather than directors, operating with an attitude of openness and discovery. Whilst these qualities are not new in the context of leadership, they do require a profound change in how leaders see their role and therefore in their leadership identity. This is why our new InView leadership framework has leadership identity at its core.

What does leadership identity mean?

We define leadership identity as who you are as a leader or how someone sees themselves in the leadership role. It is essentially their vision of the leader’s role, their expected behaviour, and how they see themselves doing this. How they lead is fundamentally influenced by this identity and how they manage themselves to fulfil this vision. Identity influences what leaders prioritise, what they talk about, and how they choose to behave.

Why is leadership identity so important?

Leadership identity underpins our interactions and ways of working and has a highly influential role on leader-employee dynamics. An interesting research study on the topic of leadership identity explored three types of leadership identity (individual, relational, and collective leadership identity) and their relationship with leadership effectiveness. The study found a correlation between leaders with a strong collective identity and transformational leadership behaviour, while leaders with a strong individual identity tended to demonstrate more abusive leadership.

In simple terms, if leaders are self-focused, they’re not just less effective, they’re a challenge to work for. At a time when people want a more inclusive and empathetic workplace and more flexibility in when and where they work, this style of leadership will not enable organisations to address the key leadership challenges our research identified, such as engaging and retaining talent.

Our leadership identity also impacts how we interact with other leaders. Given the complexity of work, hierarchical leadership models can present an obstacle to the demand for greater agility and collaboration. Organisations need leaders who are accountable for delivering results, but also see their role as working within leadership teams to deliver wider value for the organisation and key stakeholders. A leader with a collective identity sees their role as being part of a team – collaborating rather than competing and creating and evolving rather than surviving.

In a competitive landscape, leadership identity matters because it influences how courageous we are – the extent to which we challenge things and drive for change and improvement. This is a key requirement of modern leadership. Also, with increased recognition that thriving organisations have a sense of belonging and strong psychological safety, honest and brave leadership is required to create this. Leadership courage is strongly influenced by how leaders see their role and purpose, the values they hold, and how empowered they are by this identity.

How does leadership identity influence how we select and develop our leaders?

If the role of leaders is changing, the way that leaders see the role and themselves in the role needs to change. They need to reimagine themselves which involves shifting both their mindsets and adopting new behaviours.

When we select leaders, we need to look beyond skills and experience and delve into who they are as a leader and their leadership identity. Does their vision of leadership align with the behaviours we expect? For example, in our InView leadership framework, empowering approach is a key leadership quality. For a leader to do this, they need to see their role as one of enabling and facilitating others rather than one where they come up with ideas which they get others to deliver. Whilst complex, leadership identity can be assessed through interviews and psychometrics that explore motives and values.

Leadership development needs to include work on leadership identity. In the research study I referenced above, they concluded that “developing successful leaders requires training and development programs that not only emphasise technical and behavioural skills, which equip people with leadership tools, but also nurture appropriate identities, which bestow the proper motivations for using those tools.” They recommend that this identity work is done at all leadership levels because when people first enter leadership roles, the power and status associated with these roles tend to activate an individual identity. This can strengthen as leaders advance because high level leadership positions are associated with greater personal power, more status, and less frequent contact with subordinates.

The impact of leadership identity on organisational dynamics

When organisations are serious about wanting networked, engaging leaders, they need to set this clear expectation and provide development that helps leaders to adopt more interdependent and inclusive leadership identities. The concept of collective leadership identity is important and one that organisations seeking to reset leadership need to embrace. Providing clarity about the role and expectations of leaders is fundamental and goes hand in hand with identity development.

This type of transformation isn’t easy and for leaders to make this shift they need to do this voluntarily. Transparency surrounding the creation of new leadership role definitions, selection approaches, and development paths will help leaders to understand why this change is needed and increase their likelihood to embrace it.

Nine essential elements for modern leadership

The requirements to successfully lead in today’s organisations differ significantly from the past, and leadership hiring and development processes can only be effective if the attitudes, skills, and behaviours measured align with demands of the modern, complex world.

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