When a leader steps into the leadership role, the way others perceive them changes. Naturally, subjects expect the leader to understand the company’s or department’s direction clearly. They expect the leader to be on top, have the energy, and be engaged in the task. Furthermore, they expect the leader to act instead of being passive regarding specific subject-matter issues and conflicts in the department.

Stepping into a leadership role, making it their own, and unpacking it; is defined as leadership identity. In other words, one begins to see themselves as leader and act like one.

In a sense, leadership identity is thus something one is assigned when interacting with their employees, managers, and business partners. However, it is also something one actively chooses. Therefore, leadership identity is crucial to how a leader works and succeeds with different tasks. The good news is that everyone can work on it, adjust it and refine it throughout their career.

Professionalism vs. leadership identity

Leaders usually have a history as professionals, which is often the foundation for their work as leaders of employees with the same professional background. We all know the engineer who became head of his colleagues at a consultancy or the schoolteacher who became headmaster. The leadership role is often closely linked to professional competency. Some leaders are, to a greater extent than others, able to move away from their professional background and towards a strong leadership identity. This is interesting because research suggests that how you understand yourself as a leader is crucial to how you act in this role.

The stronger the leadership identity a leader experiences, the more vision management the leader exercises. Strong leadership identity is thus an advantage when the leader needs to get a helicopter view and work with visions, strategy, and long-term goals. Of course, as a leader, there will always be situations, projects, and tasks that call for more professional leadership and a solid professional identity, e.g., the engineer who manages to lead professionally on a significant strategic construction project. However, it is essential for the engineer in question not to get so caught up in the professional challenge that they unknowingly blur the leadership identity. Here, it is a strength that you as a leader can complement and balance the two identities so that you, in addition to being able to influence the level of professionalism, are still aware of and manage to lift yourself and take general responsibility.

In our view, leadership identity is not about the leader being more concise, framing, and managing. It may be the right thing to do in some situations; however, in other cases, it may be the right thing to be more facilitating, supportive, and give space to others. Therefore, it is very much about you looking at your task, people, and organization and pragmatically taking on the job of doing what is required, thereby growing in and with the job you are to solve. For the same reason, leadership identity is not static. On the contrary, it can be actively developed. Thus, leadership is something you need to work on and practice.

Leaders act

Leadership identity is also about how you view the relations surrounding you in your department and regarding business partners in the organization or among clients. As we all know, work relations vary. Some are close and constructive. Others are distant and more difficult. Sometimes, uncertainty or even conflicts arise. Several explanations exist for how these relations have become deficient or less productive. Sometimes, it is because others have done or failed to do something, which is the reason for the disagreement or conflict.

However, as a leader, the reason for the conflict does not matter. Instead, a leader must consider it a challenge that needs addressing. For example, it might require them to raise the question in the presence of everyone. Or it may require them to invite the other colleague for a cup of coffee to discuss issues. Or it may need them to almost invisibly start being more friendly, supportive, and listening to the leader’s approach to the other person, even if it is out of their comfort zone. What matters is that the leader does not let the issue slide if it is critical to their department or business.

Leadership identity is also about being decisive. Perhaps a project needs to be shut down, or an employee needs to be dismissed. Or maybe an employee needs to be promoted and challenged with new tasks. These and more decisions call on leaders to be swift in decision-making. At Talanta.co, we usually say, Be Decisive, Be Brief, Be Bold, and Be Gone.

Leaders are ordinarily thought of as having two main tasks. One of them is to solve the task at hand. This means getting projects started, holding client meetings, and ensuring budget follow-up. Let us call this task 1. The other task is to ensure that while we solve task 1, the department, unit, team, and individual become more robust, skilled, and competent. Let us call this task 2. Unfortunately, when we stress that it must take place simultaneously, task 1 is almost always prioritised higher than task 2, and task 2 is often postponed to a day when there is more time. When will that day be? That becomes the million-dollar question. Therefore, the leader needs to constantly have an eye for how to work in a way that lets them solve the task while simultaneously challenging an employee to extend beyond what they usually do or challenging the team’s way of working together. This makes the team even more robust so that the leader can continue to solve the tasks smarter and better. Having an eye for task 2 and prioritizing it in everyday life is key to taking on leadership identity.

How does one develop a more assertive leadership identity?

We can say that leadership identity must be found and unfolded at the intersection of the task and the demands it places on one as a leader and their considerations about what kind of leader they can and want to be.

A good starting point, therefore, is looking at the task. This means looking at the department’s needs, what the collaboration with managers or clients demands from you, and how you can work on strengthening what is needed. Specifically, this can be done by the leader by looking at tasks, employees, and client relations and considering what is required from the leader.

Another starting point could be to look at what many people today call your personal leadership foundation. That is, a definition of why you lead, who you want to be as a leader, and how you want to approach the task as a leader. We are talking about the values and behavior that should act as a guiding star for you in your leadership practice. Naturally, the ability to reflect and evaluate means a lot here. If having such a defining task on your own is difficult, it can be advantageous to get help from others.

With your leadership foundation in place, you create good conditions for being at ease as a leader. This refers to a leader who, if necessary, can turn up either the leadership identity or the professional identity, depending on the context and situation. When you are clear about your leadership foundation, it can increase your adaptability and help you get the most out of the different conditions and circumstances that you as a leader find yourself in at any given time.

Taking on leadership identity is about filling the leadership role. Additionally, it’s taking on the task of “adding to the situation what is needed to succeed.” Whether the situation is a task that has reached a deadlock, a conflict or a crisis in the department, or a business or client relationship that is not working optimally, leaders need to step up.

Taking on a leadership identity does not always make it easier to be a leader. But it works better, and it creates more impact! Our range of leadership programs, from junior to senior leaders, has helped many leaders hone their leadership identities. Please get in touch with us at kukua@talanta.co to discuss various leadership training offerings.