How New Leaders Emerge and Form Their Identity

How New Leaders Emerge and Form Their Identity

Emerging leaders

In order to grow and maintain their performance organisations need to produce new leaders on a fairly consistent basis. As less experienced team members step into key roles and form their identities as leaders, they are essentially going through a process of self-discovery. Leadership identity develops as individuals step into the leadership role, and that status is recognised by followers.

Leadership development

Many new leaders emerge through structured, formal training provided by their organisations. Standards and expectations of desirable leadership styles and behaviours are communicated through the acceptable actions within the culture. Observing how others lead and the type of styles that would be complementary to the work culture has a significant influence on how new leaders engage with their followers.

In many organisations, however, transitioning to leadership is a “sink or swim” challenge. Those who fail to successfully adopt their new identity within an acceptable time, by moving from follower to leader, may well be penalised and/or eventually demoted or side lined. Performance is tracked and evaluated in many formal and informal ways, whilst new leaders who excel are usually rewarded in one way or another.

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New leaders are often expected to use a combination of leadership styles depending on the situation (situational leadership). For example, some projects may require a more transactional, direct approach to keep the team focused. At other times, transformational leadership may be used when the focus includes improving team members’ skills, creating change and empowering people.

The role and identity formation process for new leaders varies widely, based on several influential factors in the immediate environment, the individual’s collective experiences with leadership and their personal beliefs about how to exert power and influence effectively.

Leadership development

Previous research

Previous research looking at how leaders emerge and choose their specific styles has found that:

  • A key element of emergence is the transitioning of a new leader’s self-image from being a general team member, or subject matter expert with specialised knowledge, into acquiring an identity as a leader.
  • New leaders need to be able to recognise the value of specific leadership behaviours and their relevance in each situational context. For example, adopting a person-focused approach in small teams vs task-focused approaches in larger teams.
  • The leadership identify formation process creates tension as new leaders balance or give up old team member roles and relationships to take on different roles and relationships.
  • New leaders, who are more conscientious and concerned with doing what is morally right, have usually been found to become more effective leaders than their more transactional colleagues.
  • There are a number of barriers that may prevent a new leader’s chosen styles from being effective, for instance a lack of support from the organisation and a limited sphere of influence.

A new study

A new study by researchers from State University of New York in the U.S. has looked at how new leaders develop their leadership style and integrate it into their self-identity.

leadership style and self-identity


The study found that a new leader’s identity emerges through a series of personal choices combined with the situational influence of their work environment. The researchers found that this predominantly occurs through ten processes:

  1. New leaders’ characteristics and experiences:
    • New leaders have their own unique ways of viewing power and effective management, based on their own values, beliefs and perceptions.
      1. Communal leaders tend to view power as social responsibility, so they largely focus on empowering team members by including them in decision-making.
      2. Exchange-oriented leaders, on the other hand tend, to see power as a self-interested asset and use it to motivate team members by leveraging rewards or punishments for behaviour.
  2. Organisational expectations and culture:
  • Organisations with work cultures that value controlling managers are more likely to promote the emergence of dominating, exchange-oriented leadership behaviours.
  • Organisational cultures that value empowering subordinates and teambuilding are more likely to produce more communal leaders.

3. Power beliefs:

  • Many leaders’ power beliefs about how to use personal power are highly influenced by their earlier experiences with other leaders and the current organisation’s leaders, who act as role models.
  • Communal leaders tend to use more transformational behaviours to increase their team members’ commitment and earn their respect, which allows for two-way communication.
  • Exchange-oriented leaders tend to use significantly more transactional behaviour to demand action. They are much more likely to give team members orders and to lead by force, which usually makes communication a one-way street.

4. Perception of situational conditions:

  • The way new leaders interpret their organisation’s situational needs has a significant impact on their choice of communal or exchange leadership approaches.
  • Demands in the work environment are assessed by the leader and the leaders vary their behaviour accordingly, based on their perception of what the organisation wants.

5. Expectations and personal characteristics impact motivation to lead:

  • A new leader’s personal experiences with past and current leaders, along with their current organisation’s work culture, shape their motivation to lead.
  • Motivation to lead is significantly affected by several factors – things like:
    • The level of responsibility they are given
    • The level of enjoyment they derive from leadership
    • Their own level of selflessness and willingness to serve

6. Motivation to lead:

  • Affective motivation (through values, beliefs and emotional responses) develops through the level of emotional enjoyment from guiding others and how much they like including leader as part of their self-identity.
  • Social normative motivation develops based on their personal sense of responsibility or duty.
  • Non-calculative motivation occurs when the individual accepts a leadership role without considering the personal costs or consequences that the position may cause.

7. Trying leadership behaviours:

  • New leaders often experiment (either consciously and systematically, or not) via trial and error to test different styles and see which ones are most effective in the current work environment and work best for them.

8. Emerging leadership style:

  • Behaviours that are not reinforced, or that receive negative feedback, are very unlikely to be repeated.
  • Successful behaviours that receive positive feedback are the beginning of the leader’s genuine personal style.

9. Self-identity as a leader:

  • Once a new leader chooses or develops their ‘style’ they tend to internalise it and make it part of their self-identity, which is then supported and recognised within their organisation.
  • Effective leaders then continue to engage in developmental positive spirals of behaviour, where skills and knowledge develop over time, building on one another based on the feedback they get from their environment.
  • Less effective leaders often get stuck in negative developmental spirals, where skills decrease over time and they become less willing to learn or seek opportunities elsewhere.

10. Self-identity feeds back into motivation to lead:

  • A new leader’s self-identity impacts their motivation to lead in positive or negative ways over time, which in turn keeps the process of leadership evolution going.
emerging leaders

Based on this emerging leadership process, the researchers recommend that:

  • Training programmes and supervisors support new leaders as they make their transitions to leaders by giving regular feedback about their behaviours and power beliefs.
  • Human resource departments should focus on helping women interested in leadership recognise their potential and overcome the bias towards male leaders that occurs in too many organisations.
  • Managers should try to influence leadership styles present in their organisation by promoting work cultures where empowerment and teamwork are more valued than transactional, dominant interactions with subordinates.


London, M., & Sherman, G. D. (2021). Becoming a Leader: Emergence of Leadership Style and Identity. Human Resource Development Review, 15344843211009632.

Leadership Development: Cultivating leader identity and Capacity

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