How Leaders' Origins Influence Their Roles - Ideas for Leaders
Idea #792

How Leaders’ Origins Influence Their Roles

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Leaders have different origin stories—the stories of how they became leaders. For example, some were thrust in leadership positions; others became leaders when they decided to start an initiative. A new study shows that origin stories legitimize leaders in their leadership roles and explain the variety of motivations, styles and personalities through which they enact those leadership roles. 


To become successful leaders, individuals must identify as leaders—that is, they must see themselves as legitimate leaders who have earned the right to be leaders.

The path to claiming a leadership identity is varied. For example, some people believe that leadership is part of their personalities. They have always considered themselves as leaders of others, even in childhood. Others first thought of themselves as leaders when they were placed in a position of leadership that required them, for the first time in their minds, to be a leader.

A new study, based on interviews of 92 leaders, identified four core ‘origin stories’—the stories that leaders carry with them about how they became a leader:

  • Personal tendency-based stories for the type of leaders described above who consider leadership as one of their personal qualities
  • Activity-based stories for leaders who began claiming a leadership identity when they started to engage in leadership activities
  • Position-based stories, which apply to the second example used earlier, that of individuals who thought of themselves as leaders only when they were thrust in a leadership position
  • Others’ recognition-based stories, for individuals who started to see themselves as leaders when they realized others saw them as leaders

Comparing the origin stories to the interviewees’ ‘enactment stories’—how they fulfilled their leadership role—the researchers found that despite the wide disparity of experiences, the origin stories and enactment stories of the leaders converged around four frames:

  1. Being: Having personal attributes that inspire. The origin stories of personality-tendency leaders were characterized by the individuals’ belief that they have ‘always’ been leaders. Throughout their lives, they have been high energy, action-oriented individuals who enjoy working in group settings and have the desire to make things better. In their leadership roles, personality-based individuals are inspirational leaders—charismatic and enthusiastic, they push a positive message.
  2. Engaging: Facilitating collective actions. Activity-based leaders acquired a leadership identity over time as they engaged in leadership activities. Perhaps they found themselves leading brainstorming sessions; perhaps they put together a team to achieve a goal or started a new initiative or even a new organization—any activity that required leadership skills. In their leadership roles, activity-based leaders are facilitators. They are most effective in encouraging and enabling collaboration, and are open to diverse opinions.
  3. Performing: Carrying out positional duties. In position-based origin stories, individuals were put in a position of authority and needed to become leaders to be successful. The position gave them the freedom to make decisions, and made those decisions impactful, but also came with responsibility and accountability. Position-based origin stories created leaders who act as traditional leaders of the past: they are the authority, but they also feel responsible for their teams.
  4. Accepting: Recognized by others to serve. Leaders in this frame began to consider themselves leaders when they realized that others saw them as leaders—when others turned to them for help in making decisions or sought them out for advice, or referred to them as leaders. The leadership style of those who draw their leadership identity from the recognition of others is driven by a sense of duty, of wanting to support others. They are not intent on being leaders, or interested in the authority and other perks of being a leader.

In their analysis of the interviews, the researchers noticed gender differences somewhat explained by social conventions related to male and female leadership. While the being and accepting frames were represented equally in the narratives of men and women, the engaging frame was significantly more prevalent in the women’s narratives (24 women to 11 men) while the performing frame was significantly more prevalent in men’s narratives (18 men versus only 5 women). One explanation is that men have considerably more access to leadership positions; women, on the other hand ‘earn’ their leadership legitimacy through taking the actions that are at the centre of the engaging origin stories.


Leadership development often reflects a position-oriented perspective on leadership: individuals are prepared to be leaders in certain positions. The different facets of leadership identity explored in this study indicates that organizations should consider adding other elements to their leadership development initiatives—elements that could include, for example, nurturing personal attributes and proactive tendencies, or focusing on relationships and social feedback—all of which is separate from issues related to positional leadership. Understanding the frames of leadership as described in this study can also help individuals develop and leverage their leadership identities.



  Wei Zheng’s profile at Stevens Institute of Technology
  Alyson Meister’s profile at IMD Business School
  Brianna Barker Caza’s profile at University of North Carolina, Greensboro
  IMD Business School Executive Education profile at IEDP


The Stories that Make Us: Leaders’ Origin Stories and Temporal Identity Work. Wei Zheng, Alyson Meister & Brianna Barker Caza. Human Relations (March 2020).

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Idea conceived

March 16, 2020

Idea posted

May 2021
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