Some leaders clearly believe they were born to lead, others were thrust into leadership positions by followers needing to be led, others became leaders as a by-product of starting a business. These ‘origin stories’ that leaders carry with them about the basis of their leadership help them identify as people who have earned the right to be followed and can define the types of leaders they become.
Research from Alyson Meister, Professor of Leadership and Organizational Behaviour at IMD, Brianna Barker Caza from UNC Greensboro, and Wei Zheng of the Stevens Institute of Technology, demonstrates how origin stories legitimize leaders in their leadership roles and explains the different of motivations, styles and characteristics through which they enact those leadership roles.
The study, based on interviews of 92 leaders, identified four main ‘origin stories’:
- Personal tendency-based stories. The type of leaders who believe that leadership is part of their personalities. They have always considered themselves as leaders of others, even in childhood.
- Activity-based stories. Leaders who began claiming a leadership identity when they started to engage in leadership activities—starting an initiative they needed to lead it.
- Position-based stories. People who first thought of themselves as leaders when they were placed in, or thrust into, a position that required them to be a leader.
- Others’ recognition-based stories. Individuals who started to see themselves as leaders when they realized others saw them as leaders.
The researchers found that the origin stories and enactment stories—how leaders fulfilled their roles—converged around four frames:
- Being: Having personal attributes than inspire. The origin stories of ‘personality-tendency’ leaders were characterized by their belief that they have always been leaders. Throughout their lives, they have been high energy, action-oriented individuals who enjoy working in groups and have the desire to make things better. Personality-based leaders tend to be charismatic, positive, and inspirational.
- Engaging: Facilitating collective actions. ‘Activity-based’ leaders acquired a leadership identity over time as they engaged in leadership activities—leading brainstorming sessions, forming a team to achieve a goal or starting a new initiative or even a new enterprise—any activity that required leadership skills. Activity-based leaders are facilitators, good at encouraging collaboration and diversity.
- Performing: Carrying out positional duties. In ‘position-based’ origin stories, individuals were put in a position of authority and needed to become leaders to be successful. The position gave them the freedom to make decisions, and made those decisions impactful, but also came with responsibility and accountability. Position-based origin stories created leaders who act as traditional leaders—they are the authority, but they also feel responsible for their teams.
- Accepting: Recognized by others to serve. Leaders in the ‘other’s recognition’ frame began to consider themselves leaders when they realized that others saw them as leaders—when others turned to them for help in making decisions or sought them out for advice or referred to them as leaders. The leadership style of those who draw their leadership identity from the recognition of others is driven by a sense of duty, of wanting to support others. They are not intent on being leaders nor driven by the kudos of being a leader.
While the ‘being’ and ‘accepting’ frames were represented equally in the narratives of men and women, the ‘engaging’ frame was significantly more prevalent amongst women; while the ‘performing’ frame was significantly more prevalent in men’s narratives. One explanation is that men have considerably more access to leadership positions; whereas women, on the other hand tend to ‘earn’ their leadership legitimacy through taking the actions typical of the ‘engaging’ origin stories.
Understanding the frames of leadership as described in this study can be valuable in helping individuals develop and leverage their leadership identities. For L&D professionals it is important to note that leadership development initiatives often reflect a position-oriented perspective on leadership. This study indicates that different facets of leadership identity should also be considered in leadership development. Elements such as nurturing personal attributes and proactive tendencies, or focusing on relationships and social feedback—all separate from issues related to positional leadership—should be added to leadership development initiatives.
Access the full research paper: ‘The Stories that Make Us: Leaders’ Origin Stories and Temporal Identity Work’. Alyson Meister, Brianna Barker Caza, Wei Zheng. Human Relations (March 2020).