Leadership Development: Cultivating leader identity and capacity

Leadership Development: Cultivating leader identity and capacity

Cultivating leader identity and capacity

Why cultivating leader identity and capacity is central to leadership development: A new paper just published has highlighted one of the current areas of focus of leadership development. The development of leader identity and why cultivating leader identity and capacity is at the crux of leadership development.

Keywords: Leader identity, leadership development, leadership, leaders, leadership capacity


Cultivating leader identity and capacity

One of the things that the latest research is starting to show is that the maturity of a leader’s identity as a leader is probably the most formative and vital process in an individual’s development as a leader. It is the identity the leader assumes which acts as the catalyst and foundation for their decision-making, thinking and behaviour.

This study looked at the process of identity formation in leaders and has some very interesting findings.


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The 4 main factors which influence leadership identity

The researchers found that four main factors influenced the development of a leader’s identity:


  1. Relationships
  2. Leading by example
  3. Developing leadership authenticity and
  4. Being motivated to lead.


Leadership development

Leadership development




The researchers discovered that leaders form and reinforce their leadership identity primarily though their relationships with others.


Authority figures


The most influential leadership identity forming relationships are firstly their experience of authority figures in their life. This spans from their parent or parent figures, siblings, family figures, friends, managers and leaders they have experienced. This will include negative as well as positive experiences. In particular the researchers found that having a coach and mentor is particularly formative.


Leader identity

Leader identity – the key to leadership development


Peer Relationships


In peer relationships it was found that the level of collaborative working tends to be the most formative. People with experience of collaboration as opposed to competition tend to form the healthiest leadership identities.


Other organisational relationships

The level of relationships an evolving leader has with other members of the organisation will also have a significant impact on the formation of leadership identity. Specifically the development of interpersonal skills and emotional connection / intelligence were found to have particular importance. It was also dealing with difficult situations which also had an impact on identity formation.


Leading by example


There are two aspects here:

  1. The first is learning to lead from the example of other role models around was found to be important in leadership identity formation.
  2. Secondly was thinking and being conscious of their own leadership behaviours and how they are impacting others. Making this process as conscious and overt as possible has, the researchers found, a positive impact on the formation of leadership identity.


Leading by example

Leading by example


 Developing leader authenticity


Consciously being aware of the coherence of their behaviour, thinking and communications is important in the development of a positive leadership identity. In particular, it was found that the attributes of developing trust, respect, accountability and fairness were highly influential in the development of a leader’s authenticity and consequently their identity as a leader.

For a positive leadership identity, it was also found that it was important that a leader:

  1. has conviction and purpose
  2. remains true to their personal values
  3. bases action on values and beliefs
  4. and maintains a high degree of integrity.


Motivation to lead


The researchers found that as leaders practice leadership it affirms (or not) their identity as a leader and this has an impact on their motivation to lead. It was found that there are three factors which have a significant impact on the motivation to lead:


  1. Achievement
  2. Power
  3. Sociability





Leaders who are achievement oriented and who tend to work towards personal goals also tend to assume responsibility, take risks and use feedback to positively achieve their goals. It was also found that high achievement oriented individuals also tend to like to remain in control and develop expertise in their areas of practice. Again this has an impact on the identity they will assume.




In part this is derived from status, but also through their relationships with people in authority, peers and other members of the organisation. It was found that most leaders gained personal power through follower interactions and this has a direct bearing on their identity as a leader. In particular the perceptions of followers contribute greatly to this.


Developing leadership authority

Developing leadership authority






The last main source of motivation comes from the leader’s desire to be at the front and to be with others. They tend to reference themselves through others. Identity is a social construct and the level of sociability and level of social referencing they conduct will have an impact on their identity as a leader.




This paper has many implications for leadership development and coaching. Certainly thinking about cultivating leader identity and capacity is a powerful development conduit. Additionally it is really useful to be able to break this down into the four influential leadership identity formation factors, which are:


  1. Relationships
  2. Leading by example
  3. Developing leadership authenticity and
  4. Being motivated to lead


These finding could easily be the core of a leadership development programme based around the idea of the emerging identity of the leader.


Reference – available to members – get on the invite list


Authentic Leadership and Being Authentic – What does that mean anyway?

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David Wilkinson

David Wilkinson is the Editor-in-Chief of the Oxford Review. He is also acknowledged to be one of the world's leading experts in dealing with ambiguity and uncertainty and developing emotional resilience. David teaches and conducts research at a number of universities including the University of Oxford, Medical Sciences Division, Cardiff University, Oxford Brookes University School of Business and many more. He has worked with many organisations as a consultant and executive coach including Schroders, where he coaches and runs their leadership and management programmes, Royal Mail, Aimia, Hyundai, The RAF, The Pentagon, the governments of the UK, US, Saudi, Oman and the Yemen for example. In 2010 he developed the world's first and only model and programme for developing emotional resilience across entire populations and organisations which has since become known as the Fear to Flow model which is the subject of his next book. In 2012 he drove a 1973 VW across six countries in Southern Africa whilst collecting money for charity and conducting on the ground charity work including developing emotional literature in children and orphans in Africa and a number of other activities. He is the author of The Ambiguity Advanatage: What great leaders are great at, published by Palgrave Macmillian. See more: About: About David Wikipedia: David's Wikipedia Page