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The First Step to Becoming a Leader: Believing You Can Be One Being a leader is described as a contextually dependent identity that individuals can shift to conditional on any given situation that might warrant leadership.

By Julia Lee Cunningham

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In our modern yet ever-changing working world, leadership has evolved into something that organizations and employers actively look for across all levels of the working hierarchy. Although leadership can be found within many different people and places, regardless of designated positions or organizational roles, most individuals don't truly start out believing that they are leaders. Often, what predicts one's leadership behavior is leader identity: whether or not one sees themselves as a leader.

The leader identity concept is particularly critical in consideration of the rising number of organizations that stray from organizing employees under conventional workplace hierarchies. Encouraging employees across all levels to envision themselves as leaders and embrace leadership opportunities is becoming increasingly valuable to many organizations, even those operating under traditional principles.

As expectations around leadership continue to evolve, organizations and individuals must recognize that the idea of being a leader is not a state in which individuals continuously and universally operate once they learn how to lead. Rather, being a leader is more appropriately described as a contextually dependent identity that individuals can shift to conditional on any given situation that might warrant leadership. This idea is especially pertinent considering the work environment post the COVID-19 crisis, where employees are often involved in various short-term and long-term team commitments, and they may or may not see themselves as leaders solely dependent on the specific situation.

However, regardless of how individuals and teams conceptualize leadership, many are still uncomfortable with having a leader identity, and they are reluctant to lead. These ubiquitous fears have naturally led stakeholders to ask why- why do so many feel resistant to leading? While there are numerous factors to consider, studies with Sue Ashford and Laura Sonday have identified three primary types of reputational fears that may avert one from leadership. These include:

1. Fear of being seen as bossy or controlling. Often, people can view a leader as having assertive and authoritative characteristics. These character generalizations can be unappealing, and they lend themselves to instilling fear in individuals from wanting to be seen as autocratic leaders who only focus on results and efficiency, and not the overall thoughts, feelings, and well-being of team members.

2. Fear of seeming different. Others may not want to come across as different as a leader, and receive too much attention for being so, regardless of whether the attention is positive or negative. Feeling too dissimilar can lead to losing a sense of belonging within a team, something many do not want to risk sacrificing for leadership.

3. Fear of appearing unqualified. The most common fear is seeming merely unfit and underqualified for leadership. This fear may stem from a lack of experience, a lack of understanding, or a lack of diverse representation in leadership in one's environment.

For organizations faced with employees who are hesitant to lead, some may find it beneficial to create low-risk opportunities for leadership, and to treat mistakes as learning opportunities that are common, and even expected. Studies show that presenting leadership opportunities as a potential risk led individuals to be less likely to identify or act as leaders, than those who received a presentation of leadership opportunities as low-risk.

Managers can play a critical role in encouraging employees to see themselves as leaders, and helping them feel more comfortable with a leader identity. Providing opportunities to develop leadership skills, championing transparency regarding success and failure expectations as a leader, and openly sharing regular feedback are just a few initiatives managers can take to diminish hindering fears, and progress a team together as leaders.

Related: Making Your Presence Felt In The Current Digital Landscape: Stay Ahead Of The Game With These Five Key Trends

Julia Lee Cunningham is an Associate Professor of Management and Organizations at the Stephen M. Ross School of Business, University of Michigan.

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