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  • Aaron Cole

A Leader's I.D.

Updated: May 1, 2019


Every leader’s journey results in an identity that is likened to an individual’s DNA or fingerprint. It is one of a kind. It has been molded, shaped, and formed uniquely. The Oxford English Dictionary defines identity as “the fact of being who or what a person or thing is; the characteristics determining who or what a person or thing is.”[1] This is the direct result of the tension, friction, and pain: leadership identity.

There is limited but growing research on the subject of leadership identity. A study done by the American College Personnel Association’s Educational Leadership Foundation and the James MacGregor Burns Academy of Leadership proves a process by which leadership identity is formed:

Leadership identity develops through six stages moving from awareness to integration/synthesis. The process within each stage engaged developing self with group influences, which in turn influenced the changing view of self with others from dependence to interdependence and shaped the broadening view of leadership, shifting from an external view of leadership to leadership as a process. Developmental influences facilitated this identity development.[2]

Leadership identity is not a destination but a journey. It will continue to grow and form as one grows and forms as a person and as a leader. Leader and author Brad Lomenick states, “When it comes to identity, the danger isn’t just that the leader will cease to be. It is also that she will unwittingly become someone she is not.” [3] The process is unrelenting and unending in the life of the leader.

Your sense of identity will help determine your scale of influence. Ignore it at your own peril. Do you have the courage to be rather than cease? … Are you brave enough to resist the forces trying to shape you into something you’re not? … Self-discovery is not one and done. There are no few silver bullets to utilize today so that tomorrow you’ll have completed the process. Discovery, by definition, is a progressive reality. It is not something you’ve done, but something you should be doing. Discovery never ends.[4]

Herminia Ibarra, Scott Snook, and Laura Ramo discuss leadership identity and development in the Handbook of Leadership Theory and Practice. They suggest “that helping people to learn requires a view of leadership development as ultimately about facilitating an identity transition. The underlying processes have not been fully articulated or systematically linked to theory or research. We argue the notion of identity transition is a useful lens for conceptualizing and designing developmental experiences.”[5] Thus, leadership identity is very real but also fairly new in the leadership conversation. Yet its importance and relevance are undeniable. “Leadership development may be one of the most important yet understudied areas in leadership research. An identity-based view of leader development calls attention to the need for creating opportunities to practice (and make mistakes with) new possible selves.”[6]

To conclude, leadership tension has implications for leaders revealing that the successful management of leadership tension is key to the success of any leader. Leadership produces tension, friction, and pain regardless of the quality of a leader. However, the response to leadership tension is what allows it to work for or against a leader. The next chapter will more fully explore the pain that comes with leadership tension. How a leader manages the pain of leadership tension is a determining factor in his or her leadership.



[1] Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. “identity,” accessed December 13, 2015, https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/identity.


[2] Susan R. Komives et al., “Developing a Leadership Identity: A Grounded Theory,” Journal of College Student Development 46, no. 6 (November/December 2005): 608–9.


[3] Brad Lomenick, "Leadership Identity: Part One,” LifeWay Leadership, September 21, 2015, accessed December 12, 2017, http://www.lifeway.com/churchleaders/2015/09/21/leadership-identity -part-one/.


[4] Brad Lomenick, “Leadership Identity: Part Two,” LifeWay Leadership, September 22, 2015, accessed December 12, 2017, http://www.lifeway.com/churchleaders/2015/09/22/leadership-identity -part-two/.


[5] Herminia Ibarra, Scott Snook, and Laura Guillén Ramo, “Identity-Based Leader Development,” in Handbook of Leadership Theory and Practice, ed. Nitin Nohria and Rakesh Khurana (Boston: Harvard Business Press, 2010), 673.


[6] Ibid., 674.


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