Developing Leaders: One Size Doesn't Fit All

by Julie Graber | on 18 Aug 2020

There's a picture somewhere.

I must have been 4 or 5 years old; baton in hand, decked out in a red felt circular skirt and vest, white majorette boots on my feet. 

The expression on my face was so serious. But I had an important job. I had been positioned in front of the other 4-6 year old twirlers for my very first parade so the other young twirlers could follow my lead.

That was my first experience with being a leader. 


A number of years ago, I ran across a number of articles about how we develop an identity as a leader. One of the articles talked about the defining moments in our leadership journey - those moments that caused us to add “leader” to our sense of self. 

Most of us go immediately to a formal role we held - class president, team captain - or awards that we received. But often there are the more informal experiences, experiences without a formal title or authority, that convince us that we could be a leader and be successful.

Developing a leader identity is a complex and iterative process - one that can be all the more difficult for women and people of color - actually anyone whose identity is not straight white male - for a number of reasons.

One challenge is the need for role models whose identity is aligned with our own. We all want to see people “like us” be successful in our organizations. It reinforces the idea that it could be us someday and encourages us to seek out opportunities and experiences that will help us build our portfolio of leadership skills. Unfortunately this is a challenge for most organizations given the dearth of diverse senior leaders, but it is a critical component of any strategy aimed at recruiting and retaining a diverse workforce.

A second challenge is having a safe space to grow our leadership skills and reflect on our leadership experiences. For people who don’t match the majority, this is particularly critical - we need a place where the challenges we face won’t be scoffed at or minimized because they aren’t aligned with what the dominant group has experienced. Many organizations are addressing this need with identity-based employee resource groups and leadership programs, but as we’ve seen with bias training, leadership development can’t stop with a certificate for participation. There have to be clearly defined next steps. 

The challenges also include how to manage differences between identity-based stereotypes and authenticity as a leader. Women in particular need to have a clearly defined purpose for seeking a leadership position, one that will support both their own leader identity and the perceptions of others in the face of gender-based challenges to our interest in leadership roles.

What's clear when it comes to developing leaders is that one size doesn't fit all. 

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