Toward a New Identity Framework for Women Leaders

Leadership personas emerge from our individual psychology and are unique

"Leaders are not found in formulas,” said Dr. Barbara Curry. “The leader persona is bound up in an individual’s process of becoming.”

Essentially, leaders are not born. They are made and influenced by their experiences. And Curry, a professor in the school of education and an affiliated member of the faculty in women’s studies at the University of Delaware, is re-searching how adult identity development supports women’s ways of leading.

“In order to understand ways in which leadership develops, we must know and understand something about the de-velopmental pathways those leaders have traveled,” she added. Curry shared the next step in her research at the Uni-versity of Nebraska’s Women in Educational Leadership conference held in Lincoln in October.

Constructing a leadership image

If we understand the myths and images behind the traditional depiction of leaders, we can construct one that’s more realistic for women. “Leadership personas emerge from our individual psychology and are unique,” said Curry. “They are part of our developmental experiences.”

This means that there is no one leadership prescription or set of rules that will make us effective leaders. Instead, leadership is an outgrowth of self-exploration or self-study, which can change depending upon the context we find our-selves in. Understanding ourselves brings our intellect closer to “the multiple realities of the social experience.”

Curry defines identity as the fundamentals behind our sense of self. It’s the “stable, consistent and reliable” sense of who we are and what we stand for. Identity includes our values, goals and beliefs, which influence the way we behave throughout our lives. Identity also links our past to our present. It becomes a way in which we organize and understand our experiences and share our “meaning systems” with others.

Identity is not static. It’s a continuous, largely subconscious process that changes with our experiences. And it’s dif-ferent for everyone. Those whom we identify with, our heroes, our leaders and those who have impacted us in some way are included in the process.

Some researchers theorize that a person’s identity is constructed in stages, such as:

Identity foreclosure. In this stage people have taken on an identity described through family experiences, and unques-tioningly hold expectations and beliefs from childhood.

They shield themselves against testing their options and working through issues. “This comes from the need to protect ourselves from attention which calls us to question who we are,” explained Curry. We reject an outsider’s belief and refuse encounters with it. “We make a mental note to ourselves saying ‘I won’t be having lunch with them again,’” she noted.

Or we can change our belief system completely so that it’s comparable with the force causing the tension. Another option is to reconcile some of the differences between the two.

Identity diffusion. Individuals in this stage are neither in crisis nor committed to a particular way of being. These are the drifters, the ones who haven’t settled down to something concrete such as a job, a relationship or an education. If this stage continues, it becomes a patterned behavior.

Moratorium. During this stage, people test theories and options. Indecision is a characteristic. A crisis often triggers this stage, causing us to question our beliefs, our values, our interpersonal relationships or the process we engage in relating to the “other.”

Identity achievement. After testing their options, people commit to a certain way of being. Curry has chosen this stage to study the persona of women in leadership.

These stages are not set, nor are they linear. “We move back and forth through them,” she explained. “Development through adulthood takes place as movement occurs between ways of being and knowing.” Our beliefs, values and commitments change over the course of our lives. Ideally, our development becomes finalized during our later years when our philosophy of life is mature, fully developed and includes spiritual components.

Multiple personas

Curry sets her research in a framework developed by Dr. Erving Goffman, a sociologist who defined the public and social persona as basically one in the same with some subtle nuances.

“This is the person you take into work in the morning,” she explained. “And it’s very different from the one wiping the slobber off of your child’s face at breakfast or the one telling your husband you’ll see him after work.”

Some would argue that if we can’t be who we are at home in the workplace, then we must be hypocrites. Curry disagreed, saying, “No, you’re accommodating the demands of ‘you’ at your job and doing what you need to keep it.”

She described street corner drug dealers as “businessmen,” whose adaptive behaviors lead to a very different persona with their families than with clients or peers.

Successful people take on an assignment and then deliberately construct roles and script appropriate behaviors to fit the role into the context. They incorporate the role into their identity and are no longer actors on a stage. Adults are expected to be mature and skilled at maneuvering through life. But in actuality, we’re likely to be still going through developmental phases. How quickly we switch from the private to the public persona depends on both the indi-vidual and the amount of transitional time available.

“Realistically, crises come up that won’t let us make the transition,” said Curry. It’s difficult to manage two different personas that are calling on us constantly, which leads to stress and illness. The lucky ones can take time off or use counseling to help transition.

Contact Curry at or 302.831.6106.

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