Leadership Identity Development: Growing Pains of Leadership is a Process

No doubt this study abroad experience was a great experience. Very few students get the opportunity. A percent of a percent to be more precise. But just like anything else in life, it wasn’t all fun and games. There were some struggles; there were some pains; there were some pushbacks; and some people weren’t very happy about the challenges and some people weren’t very happy about the uncomfortability. But that is life. That is leadership.

Boody Sunday - Selma, Alabama

Boody Sunday – Selma, Alabama

The mistake that is made is that people assume leadership is easy. They assume that leadership is this utopia where everyone’s dreams come true and that success is as normal as breathing air. In reality, it ain’t easy at all. It’s hard. It’ difficult. The best leaders fail and they fail quite a bit. But in that failure comes experience and wisdom. Was Bloody Sunday in Selma, Alabama in 1965 a success? Are those people on the ground, being beaten, not leaders? Did they not sacrifice? Did they not fail? Is that failure or is that success? No doubt it is pain and suffering. They struggled. And as a consequence, they suffered through leadership.

Ultimately, the sacrifice, pain, and suffering those leaders endured in Selma, Alabama paid off with civil rights policies and additional opportunities for American men and women, their children, and their children’s children. But does this mean that they did not fail on the first try or fail on subsequent tries? Make no mistake, they failed, they struggled, and through that failure and struggle came determination and fortitude.

One may say that there is not enough failure; one may say there is not enough struggle. Perhaps that is correct. The world’s not an easy place. In baseball, it is believed that a player should make as many mistakes as possible in practice in hopes of having a good game. Great games are rare. There is nothing hyperbolic about this reality of leadership. It is only hyperbolic if you just moved out of your parents’ house. It is only hyperbolic if you’ve obtain incredible grades throughout your entire education all the way up through college. It is only hyperbolic if you want everyone to be your friend. How is that failure? How is that a struggle? A leader does not need everyone to be his or her friend, but a leader does need to realize that leadership is a process that happens over and over again no matter the age or experience of the leader. Leadership is a complex and dynamical process because the world is a complex and dynamical place. No doubt things can be simple, but that is easy and not very intersting.

To create an academic component for this argument, there are six components of what is called the Leadership Identity Development model; that is, awareness, exploration/engagement, leader identified/leader differentiated, generativity, and integration/synthesis. Are the exact definitions and specifics for each component important? No! Not for this article. What is important is the understanding that leadership is a process and through that process, experience is accumulated. With respect to most leadership theories, the Leadership Identity Development model is fairly complex and it allows for complexity, which is more representative of the real world. It allows for an intersectionality that is more representative of the real world. It allows for a process, and make no mistake, leadership is a process in the real world. But not every leadership interaction is complex. Some are simple. The theory allows for this as well.

American Grandmother, Harriet Tubman

American Grandmother, Harriet Tubman – Photo by Modern Servant Leader

To reiterate, leadership is hard. It is difficult. It takes courage and fortitude. A leader must be willing to make difficult decisions and reap the benefits of those decisions or suffer the consequences of those decisions. A leader must also be willing to accept responsibility for his or her actions. A leader must be willing to promote and develop those under her charge. A leader must be willing take care of her people by ensuring their needs and safety and upward mobility. Some of those types of elements of leadership were touched upon in class, they resided in the readings, but they were missed in totality. But no matter the amount of the absorption of the theories or the number of reflections, they are just theories and reflections until they are put into practice.

The practice of leadership is messy. It is ugly. Rarely does theory of leadership work the way it is supposed to. Leadership is not rosie. Leadership often involves conflict. This very point is often missed. Theory seems like a good idea at the time, but then humans get involved and screw it all up. Failure occurs and then the whole thing is thrown for a loop. The whole thing goes to hell. How does someone rectify the situation? Experience. There is no magic answer. Even the best of the best leaders, those identified leaders according to the Leadership Identity Development model, fail, and sometimes they fail miserably. But experience is potent enough to dampen some of the affects of failure. Unfortunately, there is a down side to experience.

Experience is something that just can’t be taught. It’s experience. Experience takes time and patience. It just happens through repetition. Mistakes need to be made, hopefully nobody dies, and then the next time, when everything works out, genius happens. Experience allowed for anticipation and a correct response because of the anticipation. But that anticipation happened because of the failure that came before. Then an aha! moment occurred. Holy shit! That worked. Yes! It worked. But don’t expect that to happen on the first try. Success on the first try is rare. Don’t expect that to happen every single time. And depending on the industry or area of practice, don’t expect that to happen often.

Fred Hampton, Civil Rights leader

Fred Hampton, Civil Rights leader

As an example, for almost 4 centuries, American leaders, some known and some unknown, have been struggling against the American institutionalization of oppression. Some have been beaten, some have been raped, and some have been killed, i.e., Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr, and Fred Hampton. Some leaders have been slaves and some leaders have been free women and men. Some leaders came from wealth and some leaders came from poverty. But despite their differences in origin, and despite their failures and against all odds, they endured. Not because they wanted to but because they had to. There were no medals at the end.

They did not have any leadership theories. They learned from those who came before. They learned through books; they learned through proximity; and they learned from conversation. They learned through interactions. And most importantly, they learned through failure. They learned from the process. Ultimately, they were willing to sacrifice everything for an idea, even their own lives. Remember, if leadership was easy, everyone would do it.

In the end, be empathetic, be loyal, and be humble. Be willing to take responsibility for your actions. Hold yourself accountable. Be willing to learn and learn as much as you can, and then learn some more. Learn from your elders. A leader can never learn enough. Be willing to sacrifice if need be. Be willing to fail. Failure is important and humbling. Sometimes failure can be rewarding. That is a topic for another conversation (See Harriet Tubman and her willingness to fail at following the law). Be willing to admit your failure. This demonstrates honesty and integrity. Be willing to confront conflict. Embrace it. Conflict tends to weed out those who are not willing to sacrifice. And most importantly, always take care of your people. These are some of the values that will guide you through the trials and tribulations, through the ups and downs, and through the failures. These are some of the values that will guide you through the growing pains of leadership and into the right.


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