4 Reasons to Approach Leader Development as Identity Work

There are some who like to challenge the idea that people can change. In some cases, they will characterize personality as something trait-like and fixed. They may say, “You are who you are.” At the same time, many of these same people will passionately insist that we must “embrace” the changes that are external to us. They seem to believe that what’s outside of us and what’s inside of us are somehow disconnected. They are wrong.  

First, there is ample evidence that not only can we change aspects of personality and identity over the course of our life, but it is perhaps the most distinctive marker of effective adaptation, i.e, intelligence. Knowing and believing this based on my professional education, research, and professional practice, I recently developed the Leader Identity Questionnaire™ (LIQ) in order to facilitate this deeper level of adaptive development.  

But my purpose here, is not to describe or promote the LIQ. Rather, I’d like to simply offer the rationale for conceptualizing and approaching leadership and leader development as identity work. It makes a difference. It’s within reach. And it sticks!  

What is identity?

Identity is the coherent, differentiated wholeness of meaning that defines an individual person as a self and agent of action to oneself and to others. Persons are differentiated by their physical appearance and distinctive patterns of overt behavior; also by acquired capabilities to think, do, and act; and, finally, by their personality, values, judgment, and ways of relating to others. All of this continues to evolve, i.e., develop, over the course of one’s life and in response to one’s experience, choices, and role-taking. Therefore, identity is an inherently personal, social, practical, and relational phenomenon.  

Leadership and leader development as identity work  

We either grow, adapt and thrive (prosocial development) or we stagnate, either by retreating from life or by defiantly reacting to change and challenge with maladaptive recalcitrance. What makes the former prosocial and adaptive and the latter anti-social and maladaptive are the normative values that motivate action and shape attitude. The prosocial path seeks the common good, respects the dignity of all, and empowers others to assert aligned acts of agency. Those taking the latter path choose to check out or to dominate others. I believe the prosocial approach is to be preferred based on moral and pragmatic considerations.  

Leader identity development is important because:  

As leaders, we are free to implement our self-concept (the leader we would like to be) and promote the flourishing of our enterprise and its people. Indeed, doing so is a vital expression of leader responsibility, which is fully compatible with but goes far beyond honoring our accountabilities.[1] I also offer a few other research-based facts and reasons that argue for this approach to the practice of leadership and leader development:    

  1. Leader authenticity promotes trust, engagement, and performance, and it’s grounded in knowing who we are and cultivating more effective ways of being who we are.    

  2. How we express who we are as leaders must adaptively change as we take on new roles and face new challenges originating from within or without the organization.    

  3. Management must learn to look for and explicitly specify the indicated needs for adaptive change, the “learning curve” implied, and the expectations for leader development.      

  4. Over and above adaptive changes in role-based identity, the leaders must clarify and hone expression of their moral core as persons in order to inspire trust and confidence.    

As you can see, leader development thus conceived goes deeper than skills training. It does so in order to activate sources of meaning and motivation that move us forward and give us the reasons and the courage to persist in our efforts, even in the face of the adversity and setbacks we must expect along the way when navigating steep learning curves.

[1] I’ve written elsewhere about the difference between and complementarity of responsibility and accountability. In simple terms, the former is a principle-centered, value-based, self-authored core of beliefs that guide judgment and action from within (moral agency), whereas accountability concerns what we owe to others in virtue of our role and the fiduciary duties specified in our agreement to take the role and act in the interests of the organization.