The role of identity in leadership

Helen Twose
The role of identity in leadership

Not so long ago Dr Lester Levy was pulled aside by a student in his MBA class. The guy wanted to know how he could influence his boss.

Lester Levy

Dr Lester Levy

He had been trying without success so he took the problem to Levy, a chairman and director on a number of private and public sector boards, adjunct professor of leadership at the University of Auckland Business School and founding head of the New Zealand Leadership Institute (NZLI).

“He was asking me ‘what do I have to do to influence my boss, because what I’m doing is not working?’ and the point I’m making is ‘who are you being when you’re trying to influence your boss?’” says Levy.

Levy had some sympathy for his student’s problem.

When he was first put in charge of large organisations at a young age – “too young” – Levy says he got into the office and thought ‘great, I’ll just pull all these levers and this is going to be awesome’.

He quickly discovered the ‘levers’ weren’t connected to anything, that what he needed to do was roll his sleeves up and begin the hard work of building relations and linking people.

“It really does come back to this point ‘who you are’ is more important than ‘what you do’ and that's why identity is so important,” says Levy.


So what is identity in the context of leadership and why is it important?

Associate professor and director of research at the University of Auckland-based New Zealand Leadership Institute, Brigid Carroll, says we are more used to talking about “selves”, but the single self we build on as we go through life can be limiting.

“I might have this self, but what you actually see in this room is an identity; you see an identity as an academic or a leadership scholar, and so identity is a useful word for pulling yourself away from where you have one of them, to actually interact with the world in multiple ways and if we call those ways identities then we can look at how we craft them,” she says.

“Identity enables us to talk about aspects of self that we have to challenge, change, grow and cultivate.”


The intangibility of leadership

A mother of three teenage boys, Carroll says her sons think her work is boring and that leadership is easy.

“They think leadership is being in charge and telling people what to do.”

Carroll says her boys are at an age where it looks like that’s all there is to leadership, but when she and Levy have questioned senior executives about the characteristics of leadership the responses showed it was far less straight-forward.

Leadership was something more intangible that took executives out of their comfort zone; it was confusing and hard to describe; and it was a big unknown.

Management, by contrast, had them back on stable ground, confidently defining activities, processes, procedures and tasks that were daily work fodder.

“Identities are not created equal and there is something about the leadership identity, which is precarious and fleeting and hard to hang on to and that’s the real interest in looking at leadership identities because people think they’re doing leadership but often they’re not, they’re doing a command, managerial form of work,” says Carroll.


The difference between management and leadership

Management can be defined as applying a proven solution to a known problem, says Levy, whereas with leadership you’re dealing with a unique problem and you’re trying to solve it in a novel way.

A person will have separate identities – as a technical specialist, a manager, a leader, a mother – but there is an important relationship between them and times when it is appropriate to select the right identity from the arsenal.

Levy says it is not uncommon to speak to people in management who have an enticing leadership narrative but when pushed a little in questioning or observed with others, all they have is a management frame of reference they have never really left.

Going back to his example from his MBA class, Levy says the student was bringing a technical rather than leadership identity to a situation where he wanted to influence his boss.

Management has become so embedded because it provides a safe haven, with answers to everything, says Levy.

Leadership is more about questions, ambiguity and complexity.

“It’s not as tidy and sort of frightening to people,” he says.

Pull out quote Bridgid


Seeing beyond the immediate situation

In Levy’s example, Carroll says instead of providing an unwanted technical answer, a question could open up the space for exploration.

“It’s not an easy concept to grab, this identity, and that’s why people struggle with it, but anything that’s worthwhile is hard,” says Levy.

The pair give two examples of women prepared to lead organisations into new territory – IndraNooyi, PepsiCo, chairman and CEO, who completely revised how the company approached product innovation and Cynthia Carroll, former CEO of Anglo American, who shut the world’s largest platinum mine in Rustenburg, South Africa, in order to address a massive health and safety issue.

What is common to both is the ability of the CEOs to see beyond the immediate situation and to help the company learn what it yet doesn’t know through leadership, says Carroll.

“It’s also an awareness and confidence to go into the unknown – I think that’s the big leadership marker – and to do so with a curiosity.

“In both examples I don’t think either woman knew exactly how to fix it, or probably they both knew they couldn’t do it, that they had to take the organisation on a journey where the organisation learnt and what it needed was the impetus and the invitation to make that journey.

“That’s the big change in leadership,” she says, “something we unpack in our NZLI leadership development programmes”.


No magic formula

All this it backed by reflection, critical analysis, feedback and, most importantly, practice, says Levy.

“There is no rabbit to pull out of the hat, no formula, no checklist.

“The instrument of leadership is self,” says Levy.

“The engineer has the computer; the doctor has the scalpel; but when it comes to leadership it’s self, that’s all you’ve got.

“That’s why identity is important and that is why leadership development is critical.”