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JMD 28,10

Leadership as identity construction: the act of leading people in organisations
A perspective from the complexity sciences
Tom Karp
Oslo School of Management, Oslo, Norway, and

Received 13 March 2008 Revised 13 October 2008 Accepted 17 November 2008

Thomas I.T. Helgø
Emergence, Oslo, Norway
Purpose – The objective of this article is to explore and challenge the concept of leadership by presenting a perspective on leadership as identity construction. The perspective presented is based on premises from the complexity sciences. Design/methodology/approach – The article is based on a conceptual discussion. Findings – Leadership is better understood as identity construction. This is because leadership emerges in the interaction between people as the act of recognising and being recognised. Leaders’ images of themselves are therefore social constructions and the development of a leadership self (and thereby leadership) is coupled to the interaction between leaders and followers. Research limitations/implications – The research is limited to a conceptual discussion. The findings need to be further explored and challenged by other methods. The discussion is focused on organisational leadership. Practical implications – Leaders do not always have the control that mainstream leadership theory suggests. The act of leadership is therefore better understood as identity construction. In the article the authors suggest a conceptual framework for reflecting on leadership identity because self-images influence people’s acts as leaders. The concept of leadership is hence the ability to mobilise the discipline necessary to develop one’s self by reflecting on identity in different contexts and coupling this to the acts of leadership. Originality/value – The principal contribution is a conceptual discussion on the concept of leadership. This contribution provides managerial ideas and insights into the act of leadership in organisations faced with increasing complexity. Keywords Leadership, Leadership development, Work identity, Personality Paper type Conceptual paper

Journal of Management Development Vol. 28 No. 10, 2009 pp. 880-896 q Emerald Group Publishing Limited 0262-1711 DOI 10.1108/02621710911000659

Introduction Leaders seem to have unique opportunities because their position makes them gatekeepers for some aspects of the experience of others. But what is leadership? Like all terms in social science, the concept of leadership is obviously arbitrary and subjective. An observation by Bennis (1959, p. 259) is as true today as it was many years ago:
. . . the concept of leadership eludes us or turns up in another form to taunt us again with its slipperiness and complexity. So, we have invented an endless proliferation of terms to deal with it . . . and still the concept is not sufficiently defined.

During the last two decades. Hence. Such traditional ways of leadership grow out of a view of organisations as equilibrium-seeking systems where the future is knowable and anticipated by leaders who plan interventions and control behaviours. economists. In doing so. chemists. most academics and practitioners agree that the objective of leadership thinking and practice is to construct a way of making sense and direction of organisational life. like Gosling and Mintzberg (2003). In this paper we will argue the latter. and passion (Covey. Yet others argue the need for attributes like vision. and taking responsibility as the way to effective leadership. relating. meteorologists. A large body of academic literature conceptualises the above by identifying what leadership is and what makes successful leaders. dissipative structures. then organisations should be regarded as responsive processes of relating and communicating between people. This literature suggests that the leader can sit outside the organisation as an objective individual. in leadership theory and practice we are concerned with social systems. or the need to mix personal humility with professional will (Collins. influential academics like Drucker (2004) focus leadership on opportunity. 2003). the need to master capabilities such as sense-making. Regardless of their school of leadership theory. biologists. Yukl. complex adaptive systems. Their work goes under such titles as chaos theory. visioning. 2001). The complexity approach Most of the above conceptions of leadership predominately reflect the assumption that it involves a process whereby intentional influence is exerted by an appointed person over other people (followers) to facilitate activities in a group of people or in an organisation. physicists. Leadership as identity construction 881 . Independently of this work in the natural sciences. Others. similar ideas related to social systems have been appearing in sociology and psychology. 2004). This is because how the leader performs will depend just as much on the kind of recognition and the kinds of responses of others as it does on personal attributes. and inventing (Senge. and nonlinear dynamics.g. Complexity thinking related to social sciences therefore focuses attention not on some abstract macro-system but on what people (as leaders and followers) are doing in their relationships with each other on a micro-level (Shaw. design and apply deliberate interventions to move the organisation or group of people forward. psychologists and computer scientists have worked across their disciplines to develop alternative theories of systems. Whether leadership should be viewed as a specialised role or as a shared social influence process is controversial in leadership theory. point to the different mind-sets a leader requires to lead successfully. In this article we will argue that it is often not possible to identify the preferred leadership attributes of the “ideal leader” and then conclude that a person with the requisite attributes will perform effectively as a leader and move the organisation forward. Much of this work prescribes the characteristics of leaders and the styles to be applied in different situations (e. performing actions. In this article we will suggest that complexity sciences make a contribution to our understanding of leadership and human interaction in organisations.In this article we explore the concept of leadership as identity construction. 1990). we are taking a different approach to what it means to lead than do most mainstream approaches. 2006). disciplines commonly referred to as complexity sciences. discipline. If complexity theory is applied to leadership. a psychology based on relationships (Stacey. In accordance with such tradition. 2002).

and their own agenda. . the way we talk in the group or in the organisation reflects how we see ourselves in the organisation. Organisations behave like ongoing reality construction entities – leaders can often not decide on one reality. Organisations – private or public – operate in a complex external and internal environment. People are constantly shaping and shifting the width and depth of their relationships. into interactions with others with their intentions. through loops of interaction that create individual and collective motivation. depending on the context. and so forth). People together construct a future that is a function of their history. . .10 882 Following the above. even without impulses from the external environment (Stacey. Several researchers support the above claims. According to Shaw (2002). given their circumstances. and it is not possible for a management team or a single leader to understand cause-effect loops. 2003. the authors contend that possible consequences of complexity thinking for our way of understanding leadership and organisational life are some of the following: . they behave and react in a number of unpredictable ways. . their identity. Organisations are rich in people diversity. processes and culture. Stacey (2003). that there is no personal choice or freedom. behaviour and identity. as leaders we can apply our intentions in relation to others. but in terms of what actions become possible and sensible for them. and Beinhocker (2006). however. according to complexity theory. 2005). suggest that the best a leader can do is to enter. People construct their future not as a single “vision”. with his or her intentions.JMD 28. These influences arise in dynamic relationships between people – and in specific and changing contexts. “values” or “strategy”. therefore leaders cannot fully determine what happens or choose it. New ways . . North (2005). This does not mean. structure. People in organisations influence and affect each other. individuals and groups form and are formed by each other simultaneously. 2004). of particular interest are the works by Shaw (2002). activities. in the organisation. out of which something will be created under no one’s full control. as well as systemic connections. This means that leaders do not always have choices and do not have the control that most leadership theory suggests. In contrast we will. Covey. vital assumptions continuously change due to dynamic developments and events (in the marketplace. The main points are that the way humans relate is in itself complex and uncertain. but which is always open to further shaping as people continue to communicate and interact. People in organisations are not the rational actors leaders wish them to be. in the industry. and groups or organisations are reflections of our identities (Stacey. This is because the future is under perpetual construction and the past is continually reconstructed in relation to the present moment. . . Leadership as identity forming Leaders lead groups or organisations.

from conversations. to create meaning and to express identity. In contrast. Shaw. The act of leadership is therefore created simultaneously between leaders and followers.of talking are new ways of making sense of the group or the organisation and of ourselves (Weick. people are constructing relationships.. 2002). it is our view that leadership is not static or permanently possessed (even though somebody has this in his or her job description) but emerges from the ongoing interaction between leaders and followers in the present: The real work of leadership is in leaving the models behind and discovering in the here and now. 2004). what leadership is possible and needed (Binney et al. Following this argumentation. according to. and the events occurring within them. What then emerges from such conversations. and to construct new forms of relationships is to construct identities (Stacey. The (formal or informal) role of the leader emerges. they construct new forms of relationships. For it is from within the dynamically sustained context of these constructed realities that what is talked about get its meaning and its direction. The important aspect. This is the emergence of the act of leadership by an appointed leader or by a person not appointed who takes leadership in a given situation. We argue that the character of these conversationally developed and developing relationships. The identity and behaviour of the leader is as much formed by the group as he or she forms the group in his or her recognition of others (Griffin and Stacey. 15). with this group of people. p. this organisation and in this context. 2001). When leaders influence the way people talk in organisations. In these attempts. The authors contend that what matters are not so much the conclusions arrived at as the context within which arguments are conducted. 2003. The obsession with the characteristics of the leader is coupled with a tendency to see an organisation in terms of its leader. 2005). People communicate in organisations in order to couple their practical activities in the organisation with those around them. according to Shaw (2002). with a special super-heroic individual. 2005. the philosopher Hegel (1807). and is continually iterated. 2002). The experimental psychologist Kurt Lewin was the first to write about the importance of the group in shaping the behaviour of its members (Burnes. in its widest sense. the sociologist Elias (1991). for example. is that the self is relational. One such difference is obviously the role of the leader. and the neurobiologist Cozolino (2006). 2003). Individuals form groups and are also being formed by the groups. make sense of their surroundings and themselves. What is interesting is how people develop and sustain certain ways of relating to each other in their conversations and then. Leadership as identity construction 883 What is being recognised in the leader-follower relationship is a configuration of power in which the power balance is tilted towards the identity of the leader (Griffin and . is a diversity of identities in which each participant recognizes and is recognized in the differences (Stacey. and is continually iterated in social processes of recognition (Griffin. The leadership is then linked to both what the followers presently accept as legitimate sense-making and power relating by the leader and what the leader sees as possible acts of leadership based on his or her current and tentative sense-making and future direction. are of greater importance than the shared ideas to which they might (or might not) give rise. to locate the responsibility for the life of an organisation. we suggest that leadership is perhaps better understood as a dynamic process which occurs between people rather than depending on the individual characteristics of the leader – appointed or not.

Leaders emerge in the interaction between people as the act of recognising and being recognised. and we contend that leadership is then better understood as the movement from idealised to the actual experience between people. 2005). suggests something permanent can exist and be possessed by a person appointed to the task. we do not intend to minimise the significance of leadership by identifying “substitutes” for leadership. leaders and followers in organisations want to believe that someone. as Klein (2004) puts it. separate entity. appointed or not) is the one who has the capacity to influence the group. more importantly. What constitutes leadership identity? Identity is a multidimensional construct used throughout the social sciences to describe an individual’s comprehension of him or herself as a discrete. is in control. In their anxieties. We will claim that leaders’ struggle to hold on to a sense of order is linked to a wish to reduce anxieties associated with disorder and unpredictability. We also contend that leaders act and leadership is therefore action. On the contrary. “a dynamic. Day and Harrison. This is obviously a process requiring reflection and personal development (see. Pearce. credibility. Such action is made possible by the way leaders construct their identities as leaders. we also agree with the conclusion made by several researchers that leaders are not born leaders but we will suggest that leadership is a development process not suitable for everyone. We propose therefore that leadership is an emergent phenomenon of people in interaction or. The action of the leader is not split off from the nature of leadership. leadership is a social phenomenon that emerges only in interaction – and has no value without interaction. it is our stand that the forming of leadership identity is a result of hard work related to the understanding and development of oneself in relation to others. it is our view that it is more fruitful to speak of the forming of leadership identity rather than skills/characteristics/traits. on identity and relationships. This claim is supported by the work of Griffin and Stacey (2005). 2007). Obviously. as well as the act of gaining the necessary trust. and respect to perform as a leader. for example. Day and Harrison (2007) support this by arguing that using identity as a development lever promotes leadership. We therefore argue that leadership is about dealing with the unknown and the emergence of new patterns of communication and behaviour. The leader is embodied in an individual person but. By taking this stand. more importantly.JMD 28. The one who is recognised as a leader (being formal. such capacity is not static. as discussed above. the former containing movement as opposed to the latter. The debate about leadership skills/characteristics/style. 2007. In making this argument. informal. The potential for a shift in power is therefore present in any given moment as long as there is interaction going on. the notion of the leader as the one who is in control is not consistent with reality. In psychology. socially enabled and socially constrained set of functions”. it should be viewed as a dynamic process emerging between people – dependent obviously on context but. In terms of leadership capabilities. This is a distinction from the dominant way of thinking about a leader as holding an assigned position to oversee activities and seeking to achieve a desired outcome. The reason for this paradoxical nature of leadership is that it is a complex process of being and not being in control. We think that rather than viewing leadership as something that can be possessed. identity often relates to self-image (a person’s mental model of him or .10 884 Stacey. However. somewhere.

the thoughts and actions at different moments of time may pertain to the same self. identity promotes a view of the dynamic and multifaceted self as the enduring substance in identity forming (Lord and Brown. The idea is that any individual’s sense of identity is determined in large part by the choices and commitments that he or she makes regarding personal and social traits.g. Moxnes. etc. the ego identity more commonly known as the self. From the vantage point of self-psychology. Following the above. Forces at various levels (for instance personality traits. The self is the individual core and substance. One of the more widely accepted theories was developed by the German developmental psychologist and psychoanalyst Erik Erikson (1959).g. the work of James Marcia (1966) focuses on choice and commitment as central to this process. and development can then be charted in terms of a series of stages in which identity is formed in response to challenges and human interaction. and choices create values (see. The particular characteristics of the self determine its identity – the individual’s personal. focusing on explaining an individual’s actions within a group in terms of mental events and states. To another person. Mead. Therefore. 1979. different situations may bring different aspects of the self to the fore. the intentions of another individual can only be inferred indirectly from something emanating from that individual. He proposed a framework to describe identity based on a psychological sense of continuity. Thus. 2000). The self is thus the personal idiosyncrasies that separate one person from the next (Erikson.herself). 1987). 2007). self-esteem. some claim that values create choices. which endures through time. Building on Erikson’s (1959) research. thus identity. choices. 1890/1918. thus. 1945. Over the years different theories of the self-images have been identified (e. namely between “own“ versus “others” images of self-state representations. Self-psychology also investigates the question of how the personal self relates to the social environment. Some social psychology theories go further by attempting to deal with the issue of identity at both the levels of individual cognition and of collective behaviour (e. 2004). 1961. James. Many also argue that most of such choices are value-based choices. An important issue of interest in social psychology is thus the notion that there are certain identity formation strategies that a person may use to adapt to the social world. Wylie. Higgins (1987) proposed Leadership as identity construction 885 . 2007). highly subjective comprehension of him or herself as a separate human entity – his or her self-image. Lecky. commitment. Rogers. 1959) and the human being responsible for the thoughts and actions of an individual. leading to activation of identity at a given point in time (Brickson. The development of identity is based on this self. personality and individuation. and (2) the actual content of the schemata which compose the self-concept (the “Me”). 1968). 1902. the self of one individual is exhibited in the conduct and discourse of that individual. and the self-concept. This subjective comprehension of the self may contrast the other domains of the self. there are two areas of particular interest in terms of development of identity: (1) the processes by which a self is formed (the “I”). for example. Cooley. Day and Harrison. People’s self-perception is composed of different aspects. 1934. 2007).) influence the accessibility of a given self-concept. may change due to various external stimuli and environmental challenges (Kark and van Dijk. or the distinction between the ideal self and the ought self (Higgins. Colby.

That is the interior dimension of the individual when leading or engaging in other human interactions.JMD 28. In general. Mead (1934) argued that the individual mind is the silent conversation and role-play of an individual body with itself. This work has resulted in theories of transactional leadership (Yukl. Mind is emerging in social relationships and it is itself in processes of relating (Stacey. 2006). The development of a self is thus strongly linked to human interaction by communication. Based on identity theory as rooted in the work of Mead (1934) and expanded by Stryker (1968). Such argumentation is supported by recent developments in neurobiology. We therefore suggest that one’s image of one’s self is a social construction – being created and re-created. 2007. the clinical psychologist Cozolino (2006) argues that the brain is an organ of adaptation that builds its structures through interactions with others and experience. and inter-subjectivity. 2003). Mead thus states that humans – and thereby leaders – cannot be understood in isolation. Moxnes. Moxnes (2007) states that to develop as a human being is to be seen. Some argue that self-consciousness. Others. the founder of analytical psychology. Dearlove and Coomber. state that most of the twentieth-century social sciences focused on objective social facts. One regulates achievement of future rewards. and Jung proposes that the goal of self-realization is to pull us to . This process is called individuation.10 886 that people have two basic self-regulation systems. a process called identity negotiation. To be seen is to develop a self. This is the dimension of the self relating and acting in a social system from which action emerges. Promotion goals represent the “ideal self” whereas prevention goals regulate the “ought self“. Building on such research. a process of the individual interacting with others in order to create an identity has been developed. These theories in social sciences have missed a spot in this respect. Carl Gustav Jung (1957). He claim that theorists in social sciences have primary concentrated their efforts on the exterior and collective dimensions of reality – mostly addressing behavioural. claims that human beings have an innate need for self-realisation. their capabilities. equivalent to social processes. scholars have taken more interest in the psychological contract between leaders and followers. the process by which such social constructions are shaped between agents in a social system. as much formed by the group as he or she forms the group in his or her recognition of others. that the self is a social construction. while the other regulates avoidance of punishments. understood as the ability to get in touch with our inner dimensions. thus. according to Mead (1934). and cultural aspects of social structures and processes – and the individuals.g. work for instance by Burns (2003) and Bass and Avolio (1994) focus on the relationship between leaders and followers. We attempt to create our own identities (the “I” becoming the “Me”) through human interaction. structures. social. and in our context. It therefore follows. Leadership-wise. such as Scharmer (2004). the leadership role. or the process of becoming an individual. systems. a person will have to negotiate separately on each identity he or she possesses by interacting with those who are affected by the role in question. 2005). As a result. The purpose of identity negotiation is to develop a set of behaviours that reinforce the identity of a person. and there is a growing body of research showing the importance of the leadership-follower dynamics. as discussed above. is the key to self-development (e. In the case of leadership this means that the identity of the leader is. according to Scharmer (2007). and their relationships.

Kegan. we claim that a leader needs to reflect on and react to identity issues. these constitute our identity where personality comprises part of our constructed identity. Other similar common representations of the self are the actual self. 1987). Jung (1957) coined our images from the past the Grounded Self. personality is both structure and process. not the mere facts of people’s lives. 1982. 1991. 2007. Baltes and Carstensen. Our identity is then a movement in time and space constituting a collection of self-images in our mind from the past. images of the present (the True Self). By reflecting and reacting. McAdams claims that there is an “I” who seeks to become a “Me”. Following this. 1959. namely the tasks that interests us – our concerns. On the contrary. such as the psychologists McAdams and Pals (2006). we propose that identity forming in the act of leading may be understood in terms of images from the past (the Grounded Self). Based on a Jungian framework. the present (the True Self) is thus living in the sense Leadership as identity construction 887 . we take a circular view of time in which the past is not given but is being reiterated in the present in the light of the expectations people are forming in the present for the future. from the present. dreams. Over and over. are role-playing and form the basis for silent conversations in people’s minds. In a forming and being formed relationship between leaders and followers. our images of the present the True Self. present and future. we do not assume a linear view of time. and from the future. Erikson. expectations for the future are affecting how we view the past and those views are again affecting expectations for the future. and our images of the future the Possible Self.our highest possible construction of identity. Day et al. the ideal self. The understanding of leadership identity may be enhanced by the use of a development approach. we will suggest a conceptual model for development of leadership identity. and images of the future (the Possible Self). Building on such work. In making this argument. 2007). where the “Me” is the end product and the “I” the reflective process. Personality can be defined as the personal traits that constitute a pattern of behaviour in different situations over time (Moxnes. Others. McAdams and Pals (2006) proposed that identity construction also includes two others elements in addition to personality. people replay the events. According to Stacey (2003).g. Day and Harrison (2007) argue that such processes also apply to leadership development. Seen together. Narratives and images of the past. according to several researchers (e. how should one pay attention to identity in the act of leading? Discovering and paying attention to identity in the act of leadership requires a commitment to develop oneself (Day et al. we mean leading by acting in the moment but at the same time paying attention to who one is in relation to others and what is occurring in one’s own mind and feelings. 1976). Towards a model for development of leadership identity Several researchers have investigated the role of identity in leadership (e. It is then pertinent to ask: if leadership is dependent on identity. Day and Harrison. and the ought self (Higgins. 2008).. according to Moxnes (2007).g. 2008). It is the personal narratives that matter. and personal interactions that are important in their life. Leaders’ life stories provide the context for experiences. With respect to self-psychology. have approached the question of identity from the concept of personality. attempting to make sense and find their way. Hence. all results of human interaction. Loevinger.. and what we have experienced earlier in life – our stories. all in the present.

2006). It is leaders’ attempt to create their own identities through their images of the living present (the process of the “I” becoming the “Me”) that influences the self-awareness process.JMD 28. This work encourages leaders to learn from their life stories and develop a strong sense of self in order to discover their personal ways to leadership. When members of the Stanford Graduate School of Business Advisory Council were asked to recommend the most important capability for leaders to develop. . possible mentors and advisors? What are the leaders’ family backgrounds. skills and capabilities? . development as a leader will not progress (Hautala. 2007). as conceptualised by Jung and Baynes (1921). George and Sims. Who have they met who has inspired them. as well as on transformational leadership. their interests. 2007).10 888 that it has a circular time structure incorporating both the past (the Grounded Self) and the future (the Possible Self). There is also a growing volume of research work on the issue of leadership and authenticity (Goffee and Jones. Leaders’ images from the past are a function of how they may learn and develop from their life story. by this they mean experiences that test people to their limits. What challenges and difficult experiences have they overcome and how can they use these difficulties to give meaning to their life? How do they find motivation from these difficult experiences and how do they grow from these? In their book Geeks and Geezers. and who has contributed to their development as human beings and as leaders? . 2005. Becoming self-aware is perhaps best understood as the ongoing process of individuation. It is a matter of framing life stories that allow leaders to see themselves not as passive observers of their lives but as individuals who have developed self-awareness from important experiences (George and Sims. The previously mentioned work on self-psychology by Marcia (1966) focuses on choice and commitment as central to the process of individuation. and their roots of origin? . 2007). What is their network or team of supportive people. The journey to increased awareness of identity as leaders and discovering the path to leadership begins with understanding the story of leaders’ lives. Such leaders. Dearlove and Coomber (2005) go further by arguing that leaders who skip the necessary stages of self-development could adapt identities that are not true to their own values and beliefs. Individuation may then be seen as the combination of self-awareness and the will power needed to develop oneself (Moxnes. This has to do with how potential leaders in early years find personal strategies to cope with difficult challenges from which they later manage to develop leadership capabilities. they answered “self-awareness” (George and Sims. Some researchers argue that without self-awareness. can be damaging to organisations if they are compensating for perceived personal shortcomings through their leadership. Pearce. Bennis and Thomas (2002) describe a phenomenon they call crucibles as central to finding ways to leadership. who has challenged them. What are the leaders’ stories? What knowledge and experiences does he/she have? What are their unique strengths. supporting the above discussion. 2007. according to these researchers. Dearlove and Coomber. 2007). We therefore suggest that the following issues are central when reflecting on images from the past – what we will term the leadership grounded self: . 2005.

Various researchers have therefore asserted that the values held by leaders are related to their behaviour (Thomas et al. subtle human activity. One may also develop the above further by asking on what principles leaders base their leadership. for achieving results and. perhaps most importantly. dedication. This is when leaders persist by having the motivation to create action and movement. This is thus the ability to communicate purpose to followers or other stakeholders. between their principles and pragmatism? Commitment The simplest way for leaders to commit to any type of purpose is to assume some kind of responsibility – for their organisation. 2007). However. 2005) and is most critical when conditions are tough. we suggest that a leader’s sense of identity is determined by the choices and commitments that he or she makes regarding different personal and social traits in various difficult situations. for themselves. suggesting that values reflect fundamental. Yukl. 2007).g.. Also. for their role in society. Moxnes. leadership-wise. and energy to make something become reality as being central to the acts of leadership. It may therefore be important for leaders to take a stand on what are the ethical and moral boundaries (for example in the form of values) that guide their professional and personal life and. We then propose that some of the following issues are relevant for leaders to reflect upon with respect to images from the present – what we call the leadership true self. what the trade-offs leaders are willing to make. Such commitment is often based on a conviction (Alexander. Leadership as identity construction 889 . for example. hold different values and give prominence to certain value over others. more importantly. Harvard professor Joseph Badaracco (2006) argues that the tension between principles and pragmatism accompanies leaders throughout their career.Developing Marcia’s conclusions further in the context of leadership. including leaders. building on the concept of value-driven or ethical leadership (see. 2004). Drucker (2001) has stated that leadership is responsibility. one way to approach this issue is for a leader to take responsibility by committing to a purpose. and behaviours. Taking responsibility is a difficult emotional and cognitive psychological challenge and hence a complex. Choices Some researchers claim that many leadership choices are value-based (e. 2005). Alexander (2005) defines commitment to purpose as the determination. Values are hence relatively enduring criteria used in generating leadership behaviour (Lord and Brown. A leader’s commitment to any kind of purpose is an act of taking responsibility. 2006). In his book Questions of Character. 2001) and regulate behaviour (Kark and van Dijk. He claims that combining principles and pragmatism is among the most difficult challenges leaders face. rather than surface differences among individuals. as the term “responsibility” is not easy to define. It may be difficult to grasp what taking responsibility actually means leadership-wise. we will propose that it is relevant for leaders to become aware of what their values are and how these values influence their choices. A consequence of commitment to purpose is hence a leader’s motivational influence on others (Alexander. for their team. Maio and Olson (1998) propose that values in a leadership context are truisms that lack cognitive support but that can be applied in an unquestioned manner. Individuals. decisions.

2005) that in contrast to biological evolutionary theory. positions. and therefore influencing leaders’ identity construction. 2002). 2005) is central for leaders. beliefs. the 1993 co-recipient of the Nobel Price in Economic Sciences. 2005. for example. Badaracco (2006) suggests that intentionality in the form of a dream is a resource for leaders. We do not necessarily agree with the above researchers or other prescriptive ways of defining effective leadership. and social – in pursuit of their goals (North. The structure that makes up the foundation of leader-follower interaction is a construct of the human mind. 2006. integrity. humans are continually testing the constructs against evidence to see if they have value. strategies. human evolution is guided by the perceptions of the players. compassion. 2007. which can employ reductionism to understand the physical world. They proposed a contingency theory for appropriate leadership behaviour according to the maturity of followers in relation to the work in question. Jung termed this part of people’s identity – the images of the future as the Possible Self. however. and normative decision theories (Yukl. constituting the cumulative aggregate of surviving beliefs. economic. directions. We therefore propose that a parameter in the act of leadership is intentionality – both the one held by leaders and shared in organisations. This adds a layer of complication to social sciences that is not experienced in the natural sciences. One such example is the work by Hersey and Blanchard (1977). Douglass C. is a part of the act of leadership. We suggest. but we argue that intentionality is present in the act of leading. the key to human development is the intentionality of the players involved: In contrast. that most such concepts may be referred back to Marcia’s (1966) work on choice and commitment – as the dominant psychological processes governing self-image and subsequent leadership behaviour. dedication. They have no existence outside the human mind. Agents in an organisational system. We contend that any kind of intentionality from compelling images or expectations of the future in the form of visions. our understanding is unlike that in the physical sciences. 1990) or some sort of strategic capabilities (Alexander. passion. humility.JMD 28. Others claim that intentionality in the form of visioning (Senge. In terms of leadership. be they leaders or followers. North (2005) argues that while the constructs human create are a subjective function of the human mind. viii). and other honourable traits as central to conception of self-images (see. social systems (for instance in the form of a leader and followers) are constructions of the human mind. p. multiple linkages models. adjust their moves to the situations that these moves together create. such thinking has given rise to theories on situational leadership.e.10 890 Jung’s conception of the True Self. choices – decisions – are made in light of those perceptions with the intent of producing outcomes downstream that will reduce uncertainty of the organisations – political. thus. The explanation is straightforward. may contain other aspects. Such evidence and theories are constructs and both at best are very imperfect mirrors of what we are trying to comprehend and thereby lead. North. 2006). Covey. Some will claim that images of the future in the form of . leaders’ images of the present. or the like. reflection. Bennis and Thomas. cognitive resource theories. Badaracco. George and Sims. A steady flow of books and concepts argue about the importance of character. argues in his latest book Understanding the Process of Economic Change (North. i. 2004. Other examples are path-goal theories.

Leadership as identity construction 891 . some people’s selves are more acceptable than others. Regardless of the various definitions of leadership and direction. Behling and Rauch (1985) claim that leadership is the process of influencing a group towards goal achievement. In constructing their identity as leaders. What are their intentions. visions.intentionality. Leaders create their identities as their individual and personal way to leadership. They may also ask themselves what their greater concerns are. for example. We suggest that herein lies the “Holy Grail” of leadership. 2006). Therefore. We also argue that reflecting on identity and coupling this to the act of leadership is an ongoing exercise lasting throughout a leader’s career. if any. These images influence people’s acts as leaders. the ability to mobilise the discipline. Jung and Baynes (1921) propose that the goal of self-realisation is to pull a human being to his or her highest possible construction of identity. what is their agenda for the future? . dreams. most leaders will find motivation in their expectations of the future. Our images of our self are a time circular construction – being constantly created and re-created. This we will call the leadership possible self and we propose that leaders should reflect on the following: . from the present. We contend in this article that such leadership identity construction is a movement in time and space. 2007. their strategies. stamina and willpower necessary to develop one’s self as a leader and. what their role in society is. in our conceptualisation of leadership identity construction we suggest that leaders’ images or expectations of the future are defining for leadership. We propose in this article that leadership is identity construction emerging in human interaction. expectations. what are their ambitions.. Lord and Hall. and how this affects people’s development and behaviours as leaders. What is also certain is that discovering individual and unique ways to leadership requires a commitment to develop one’s self. and how they can make some kind of a difference. The development of a self is linked to human interaction.g. Finding and expressing one’s self in leadership always carries risks. Richards and Engle (1986) say that leadership is about articulating visions. what are their visions. what are their expectations for the future. as a human being. and from the future. what are their dreams. or any other agendas have roots in a person’s character and everyday life (see. basically stating that leadership is intentionality in the form of direction. ultimately. Day and Lance. Following our discussion in this article. Many researchers support the above argument. We suggest that this is a defining quality of leadership. ambitions. A growing body of research (e. In this article we have proposed a framework for such reflection and development. 2004. 2005) suggests that we need to understand better the coupling between identity and leadership. and Jacobs and Jaques (1990) define leadership as the process of giving meaningful direction. Day and Harrison. most human beings articulate intentions as images of the future. Badaracco. and perhaps more pragmatic. constituting a collection of time circular self-images in our mind from the past. 2008. Day et al. This is no prescription but a conceptualisation of aspects influencing leaders’ construction of their leadership identity. we therefore suggest that leadership is perhaps better understood as who you are towards other people in challenging situations.

MA. and Avolio. 256-60. R. C.M.G. separate entity – often related to self-image. The Origin of Wealth. and Carstensen. Such action is made possible by the way leaders construct their identities as leaders. Geeks & Geezers. (1991). “The rule of three: a unified theory of leadership”. we argue. (1959).L. Improving Organizational Effectiveness through Transformational Leadership. “Leadership theory and administrative behavior: the problem of authority”. O. Boston. Organizational Dynamics. pp. Business Strategy Review. W. Harvard Business School Press. Human Development. Vol. J. Bennis. (2005). and Thomas. (Eds) (1994). Leaders’ images of themselves are also social constructions – being constantly created and re-created. we claim that leaders do not always have the overview and control that mainstream leadership theory suggests. Thousand Oaks. and Rauch. These self-images influence people’s acts as leaders.J. Identity. In the article we have suggested a conceptual framework for reflecting on such leadership identity. L. B. (2002). if any.L. Badaracco. Leadership therefore emerges in the interaction between people as the act of recognising and being recognised. is then best viewed as a multidimensional construct used to describe an individual’s comprehension of him or herself as a discrete. 51-61. pp. Random House Business Books. Such identity construction is a movement in time and space. In taking this perspective. “Possible selves and their fertility in the process of successful aging: a commentary on Cross and Markus”. References Alexander. self-esteem.G. constituting a collection of time circular self-images in our mind. Baltes. Evolution. We also argue that leadership is action. Jr (1985).D. Jr (2006). Discovering individual ways to leadership requires a commitment to develop one’s self. as well as the act of gaining the necessary credibility to perform as a leader. Complexity and the Radial Remaking of Economics. W. and between leaders and human beings in general. 4. E. 4. The concept of leadership. because we argue that leaders create their identities as their individual and personal ways to leadership. Vol. Harvard Business School Press. In this article we have suggested that leadership is perhaps better understood as identity construction. Vol. Bennis. 259-60. is therefore the individual’s ability to mobilise the discipline necessary to develop one’s self by reflecting on identity in a social context and coupling this to the acts of leadership. Boston.10 892 Conclusion The concept of leadership is arbitrary and subjective. Beinhocker. We are taking a different approach to what it means to lead than do most mainstream approaches. pp. 34.D. Administrative Science Quarterly. MA. Questions of Character: Illuminating the Heart of Leadership through Literature. Bass. B. E. namely that of the complexity sciences. M. . The development of a self is hence strongly linked to interaction between leaders and followers. personality and individuation.M.J. (2006). London. Autumn.F. 13 No.JMD 28. Behling. Sage Publications. “A functional perspective on improving leadership effectiveness”. CA.

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London. R.J. . “Communicating change – a dozen tips from the experts”. The Paradox of Control in Organizations. Boston. Conversational Realities: Constructing Life through Language.. Streatfield. London. Managing Change to Reduce Resistance. 2nd ed. San Francisco.H. J. CA. E. Harvard Business School Or visit our web site for further details: www. (2005). Organizational Culture and Leadership.10 896 Saunders. Sage Publications.emeraldinsight. P. MA.M. Shotter. Routledge. Wiley. (1993).no To purchase reprints of this article please e-mail: reprints@emeraldinsight. (1992).karp@c-k. Corresponding author Tom Karp can be contacted at: Tom. (2001).JMD 28.

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