Layers of Leader Identity

by Rachel Clapp-Smith, Associate Professor of Leadership, College of Business at Purdue University Northwest

We suggest in our research that a person’s leader identity, i.e., how one sees him- or herself as a leader, is multi-layered and stems from three different levels: individual, relational, and collective. We are not the only leadership professors to suggest this, in fact, there’s a rich area of literature and research focused on this very concept. But, if you are like most people we talk to, these academic labels don’t mean much until we explain. So, let me explain…

Think of yourself as an individual embedded in a family or group of friends, which is embedded in a community, school, or organization. You might consider an image of a small circle inside a larger circle, inside yet a larger circle. Each circle is a level or layer of identity. As an individual, you have certain personal characteristics that you bring to the table as a leader: you might be extroverted, charismatic, trustworthy, optimistic, or any other trait, value, or strength that you individually possess. That is your individual level of your leader identity.

The next circle is the relational layer. The identities you have here only exist because of your relationship to another person. You may say “I am a parent,” which is an identity that is only possible because you have a child and only came into existence for you on the day your first child was born. Up until then, that particular identity did not exist for you (although it may have been a future planned identity, but that is entirely different, and worth it’s onw article).

The third level of leader identity is the collective layer. This means we see ourselves as members of groups, and our membership to those groups are particularly important to our sense of self as a leader. For instance, I am a New Englander, and although I do not currently live in New England, this membership is nonetheless very strong in how I see myself as a leader. I know that much of how I act and think stems directly from my identification with New England. Furthermore, when the Patriots are in the Super Bowl, my identification with New England requires that I lead this particular collective in my area in a way that is representative of the collective – I connect the local collective by hosting a party with lobster rolls, clam chowder, and whoopie pies (and you are invited if you live near me and are from New England).

See how powerful these layers of leader identity can be? Each one is an important part of who we are and how we lead. Everyone is an individual, with relationships, embedded in collectives. The magic is in understanding how these many layers contribute to who we are as leaders. Take a moment to think about each layer and write down the pieces of each layer that are the most influential in how you see yourself as a leader.

About the author
Rachel is an Associate Professor of Leadership in the College of Business at Purdue University Northwest. She received her PhD in Organizational Behavior and Leadership at the University of Nebraska and MBA in International Management at Thunderbird, the School of Global Management. Dr. Clapp-Smith has devoted her research to Global Mindset and Global Leadership Development, publishing articles in journals such as the Academy of Management Review, International Journal of Leadership Studies, Journal of Leadership and Organizational Studies, Human Resource Management, Cross-Cultural Management, European Journal of International Management, and the Journal of Business Studies. She has also published a chapter in Global Mindset: Advances in International Management and in a volume of Advances in Global Leadership. Dr. Clapp-Smith has presented at a number of annual meetings of the Academy of Management, International Leadership Association, and Midwest Academy of Management. She is a co-coordinator of the Network of Leadership Scholars and Director of The Leadership Center at Purdue University Northwest.