Leadership – Getting Dressed with Identities

woman hiding her identity

by Michael Palanski, Associate Professor of Management at the Saunders College of Business, Rochester, NY

I used to think that identity was a Big Thing. Something to be sought through a heroic journey.

Something conferred by a king. Something important, and once taken on, relatively unchangeable.

I still believe those things. Sometimes I even think about it in stark terms. What if my most important possessions, most important abilities, and most important relationships were taken away from me – what would be left?  That remainder represents the fundamental me, my core identity.

True enough, and of utmost significance.  But the moments that test our true significance and our core identities are rare.  What about the other 99.9% of moments in life?  Does identity play a role in those times as well?  I think that it does. One way to think of one’s overall identity is as a collection of sub-identities. Sub-identities are nothing more than our identities that are relevant to a particular situation or to a role that we enact.  For many of us, our collection of sub-identities looks something like this:

  • Sub-identity as an employee
  • Sub-identity as a family member: a spouse or parent or sibling
  • Sub-identity as a citizen
  • Sub-identity as a friend

As I write these words, my “professor” sub-identity is active, as I seek to convey information and spark thinking.

What is really interesting about sub-identities is that we put them on and take them off, sort of like an article of clothing.  Sometimes they are thrust upon us, like when a parenting sub-identity becomes instantly active when a child cries out in the night. Other times, we get to choose them, like when we reach out to invite a friend to meet over a cup of coffee, thus activating our friend sub-identity.

In her book Liturgy of the Ordinary, Tish Harrison Warren makes a wonderful point about how we put on and take off identities throughout the day.  She notes that on most days, we all start with the same basic identity – that of the half-asleep, half-awake person-waking-up persona, complete with tired eyes and bad breath.  From there, we begin to add our other identities, putting them on and putting them off throughout the day, until we at last return to another common-to-us-all identity: the drowsy, tired person in need of rest.

So what does all of this have to do with leadership?

Well, we know at least two things about a leader identity:

1. It is chosen – even if you are in a leadership role you’d rather not have, you can still choose to view yourself as a developing leader, or not.

​2. It applies to many areas of life  – whereas identities like employee or parent apply to only area of life, “leader” applies to many areas. You can be a leader at work, with your family, with your friends, or in the community.

So if you desire to improve as a leader, one of the most effective ways to do so is to put on your leader identity each morning.  Doing so will help you pay attention to leadership opportunities and lessons, give you the courage to try new leadership behaviors, and provide you with the wisdom to evaluate what is and is not working.

Just remember to brush your teeth, too.

About the author
Mike is an Associate Professor of Management at the Saunders College of Business at the Rochester Institute of Technology in Rochester, NY. He teaches undergraduate, graduate, and executive MBA classes in leadership, organizational behavior, and business ethics. He also teaches leadership skills development and conducts leadership coaching in RIT’s online executive MBA program. He has published numerous peer-reviewed articles in journals such as the Academy of Management Review, The Leadership Quarterly, Journal of Business Ethics, and Journal of Management Education, and is a noted expert on leader integrity. He holds a PhD in Organizational Behavior / Leadership from SUNY Binghamton, an MA in Theology from Covenant Theological Seminary and a BS from Grove City College. Prior to joining academia, he worked as a retail product manager for a Fortune 500 company and as an online banking specialist.