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:
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:
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.
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