Leader Identity and Communicative Action

The title might suggest a merely semantic message. Not so, at least not merely. The overarching aim of this article is to address a mode of leader development and performance that can be transformational for the developing leader and those she or he leads and collaborates with. Having said that, often it is only through a serious and thoughtful concern for semantics (what words mean and signify) that we free ourselves from the matter-of-factness of the status quo.

Leader Identity

In the simplest terms, leader identity refers to who the leader is, the enduring qualities—physical, cognitive, social, emotional, and practical—that characterize the leader’s presence and style, over time and across situations. Even if we were to further stipulate the meaning of leader identity in order to differentiate something novel or innovative in our approach to conceptualizing leadership, we have familiar usage to build upon.

The situation is somewhat different with communicative action. It is less familiar in everyday life and in business. Therefore, we will need to take more care as we define it. Even so, I expect the expression “communicative action” will have resonance for leaders because the elemental words, communication and action, are essential to the functions of leadership, i.e., setting direction, inspiring others, mobilizing action, and sustaining execution in good times and bad. Now, more on leader identity...

We can act out of character at times, especially under stress, but leader identity conveys an expectation that a discernible core remains constant even as we grow, learn, and develop. It is this recognizable core that assures us that we know this person, that he or she is the self-same individual even if seen years later after having accomplished much and changed in appearance. Just as we notice the importance of change to constancy, we also observe the importance of constancy to change.

Indeed, it is these two elements, constancy and change, that operate reciprocally to explain identity and identity development. If we see too much change too suddenly, we sense that something is amiss. And if we see no change, we sense a lack of vitality and that a certain staleness or stagnation has beset the person. It is the dynamic and evolving nature of human identity that distinguishes our special form of personhood in full flower, adaptively thriving in our surrounding world.

Communicative Action

Communicative action, on the other hand, is a less familiar term, but like leader identity it holds familiar meaning to build upon. Action means both doing and a deed that is done. It can manifest in physical and nonphysical ways, but always as a kind of movement. Insofar as we speak about human action, we find that the word usually conveys something purposive. Indeed, it is the purpose that gives meaning to all the constituent movements or acts that constitute its arc of completion.

In the realm of leadership—understood generally as setting direction, inspiring coordinated efforts to realize goals, and iteratively overseeing and encouraging adaptation to challenges along the way—we rather immediately recognize the role of communication as a vital mode of action. However, still more is meant by the term “communicative action” in the context of leadership. And this is where we must specify further how the predicate “communicative” differentiates a particular kind of action.

It’s easiest to do this by comparing communicative action to other kinds of action. We’ll do so by drawing upon the work of Jurgen Habermas, a prominent social action theorist, whose ideas gained currency in the late 20th century. He distinguished four types of action:

1.     Strategic Action – It is goal-directed, requires the cooperation of others, assumes motives of self-interest, is conceptualized in rational means-end (instrumental) terms, and relies heavily upon persuasion and influence in order to achieve predetermined ends.

2.     Normatively Regulated Action – It is oriented toward the norms of a group; norms are grounded in common values of the group, which may not be specific to any particular strategic end, but specify what we have reason to expect from one another from a behavioral standpoint.

3.     Dramaturgical Action – It concerns participants in interaction who constitute a public or audience for one another, before whom they present themselves purposefully disclosing aspects of their self in a somewhat stylized manner with a view to influence and persuasion.

4.     Communicative Action – It is dialogical, deliberative, aims at mutual understanding of the action situation, the ends to be sought, the concerns and interests of all, the norms that should govern; the outcome is not predetermined; we shape goals and plans jointly, rationally; and we owe one another reasons in order to create rational basis for coordinating our actions.

The Role of Leader Identity in Communicative Action

A great deal could be said about the critical role of mature, prosocial, and authentic leader identity in making communicative action work. For now, I will simply say that adaptive flexibility and sincerity are vital elements in this mode of action.

The call to action here then is developmental. It is one of ongoing leader identity development that positions emerging leaders and experienced leaders to reflect afresh on who they are, how their present situation challenges them to further adapt and deploy these four modes of action in their work as leaders and collaborators.

The flatter, faster-moving, less layered, more diverse, and more global our organizations become, the more this maximization of our individual potentials to lead and collaborate become a priority. And it's an ongoing demand, affected by the ever-changing nature of our context and business challenges.

Contact Information:

As always, we're happy to discuss any questions you may have about how the topic in this blog might be relevant to you and others in your organization, and your ways of being helpful to them. Contact me by phone at 401.885.1631 or by email at bill.macaux@generativityllc.com.