In the previous chapter, we talked about people having various identities based on their life roles, at various moments in time. Many of those roles are developed organically over time. Many will also benefit from a deliberate take on whom you want to be in that role, how you want others to experience you in that role and what your lasting impact will be in that context.
The purposeful development of a leadership identity – in other words, who you are when you step into your leadership shoes, is a key element of effectively transitioning from an individual contributor role to a leader.
A recent review of the emerging leader identity literature defines one’s leader identity as a “sub-component of one’s working self-concept that includes leadership schemas, leadership experience and future representations of oneself as a leader” (Epitropaki et al, 2017, p. 9)
Leadership identity formation is a critical part of the growth and effectiveness of leaders.
As per the previously mentioned “be” vs “do” behaviours, a leader will lead stronger and more consistently and deliberately if the person views the self as a leader rather than an engineer, physician, electrician, or programmer.
A person who exercises regularly has a different outlook from a person who views the self as fit and healthy, but only engages in physical exercise from time to time, whereas the former has a whole person approach to being fit and healthy.
A person who identifies as a leader has a whole-person approach to leadership and will engage in self-reflection, continuous growth and development and a conscious, deliberate expression of leadership behaviours and skills.
Strengthening one’s leadership identity accelerates the adoption of new leadership skills and behaviours.
Every new leadership position has its unique set of skills and behaviour requirements. For instance, leading at the strategic level requires more big picture thinking, big picture alignment and skills, and wider relationship, influence and communication skills; whereas operational leadership requires strong but narrower interpersonal skills, focused decision-making and execution skills and behaviours around delegation and accountability.
In every new position, the leader has to examine the skills and behaviour to transfer and terminate the ones that are not going to serve the existing position, while adopting a new leadership identity and growing the relevant skills and behaviours that will support that role.
Leadership identity formation increases the longevity and tenure of newly promoted leaders.
The last point almost speaks for itself, however, is probably one of the most ignored aspects of supporting new leaders in adapting to their role. Researchers estimate that 30% to 50% of newly transitioned leaders fail within the first eighteen months (Burke, 2006; Watkins, 2013). The financial costs of failed transitions are estimated to range between eight to twenty-three times the annual salary of the transitioning leader (Institute of Executive Development & Alexcel Group, 2013)
It is becoming increasingly clear that organizations need to encourage and support leadership identity formation to effectively onboard and integrate leaders into new positions. A recent study by Egon Zehnder concluded that new leaders without integration (formal support to develop relevant leadership identity) take up to 6 – 9 months to become effective in the role, whereas supported leaders can reduce the integration time to 4 months. (https://hbr.org/2017/05/onboarding-isnt-enough)
The conscious and deliberate act, preferably supported by the organization, of developing a new and relevant leadership identity at every new leadership step and stop is foundational to the ultimate success and impact of the leader.
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