People become leaders by internalizing a leadership identity and developing a sense of purpose. Internalizing a sense of oneself as a leader is an iterative process. A person asserts leadership by taking purposeful action — such as convening a meeting to revive a dormant project. Others affirm or resist the action, thus encouraging or discouraging subsequent assertions. These interactions inform the person’s sense of self as a leader and communicate how others view his or her fitness for the role.
As a person’s leadership capabilities grow and opportunities to demonstrate them expand, high-profile, challenging assignments and other organizational endorsements become more likely. Such affirmation gives the person the fortitude to step outside a comfort zone and experiment with unfamiliar behaviors and new ways of exercising leadership. An absence of affirmation, however, diminishes self-confidence and discourages him or her from seeking developmental opportunities or experimenting. Leadership identity, which begins as a tentative, peripheral aspect of the self, eventually withers away, along with opportunities to grow through new assignments and real achievements. Over time, an aspiring leader acquires a reputation as having — or not having — high potential.
The story of an investment banker we’ll call Amanda is illustrative. Amanda’s career stalled when she was in her thirties. Her problem, she was told, was that she lacked ‘presence’ with clients (who were mostly older men) and was not sufficiently outspoken in meetings. Her career prospects looked bleak. But both her reputation and her confidence grew when she was assigned to work with two clients whose CFOs happened to be women. These women appreciated Amanda’s smarts and the skillful way she handled their needs and concerns. Each in her own way started taking the initiative to raise Amanda’s profile.
One demanded that she be present at all key meetings, and the other refused to speak to anyone but Amanda when she called —actions that enhanced Amanda’s credibility within her firm. “In our industry,” Amanda explains, “having the key client relationship is everything.” Her peers and supervisors began to see her not just as a competent project manager but as a trusted client adviser — an important prerequisite for promotion. These relationships, both internal and external, gave Amanda the confidence boost she needed to generate ideas and express them forthrightly, whether to colleagues or to clients. Her supervisors happily concluded that Amanda had finally shed her ‘meek and mild-mannered’ former self and ‘stepped up’ to leadership.
Effective leaders develop a sense of purpose by pursuing goals that align with their personal values and advance the collective good. This allows them to look beyond the status quo to what is possible and gives them a compelling reason to take action despite personal fears and insecurities. Such leaders are seen as authentic and trustworthy because they are willing to take risks in the service of shared goals. By connecting others to a larger purpose, they inspire commitment, boost resolve, and help colleagues find deeper meaning in their work.
Integrating leadership into one’s core identity is particularly challenging for women, who must establish credibility in a culture that is deeply conflicted about whether, when, and how they should exercise authority. Practices that equate leadership with behaviors considered more common in men suggest that women are simply not cut out to be leaders. Furthermore, the human tendency to gravitate to people like oneself leads powerful men to sponsor and advocate for other men when leadership opportunities arise. As Amanda’s story illustrates, women’s leadership potential sometimes shows in less conventional ways — being responsive to clients’ needs, for example, rather than boldly asserting a point of view — and sometimes it takes powerful women to recognize that potential. But powerful women are scarce.
Despite a lack of discriminatory intent, subtle, ‘second-generation’ forms of workplace gender bias can obstruct the leadership identity development of a company’s entire population of women. The resulting underrepresentation of women in top positions reinforces entrenched beliefs, prompts and supports men’s bids for leadership, and thus maintains the status quo.
The three actions we suggest to support women’s access to leadership positions are (1) educate women and men about second-generation gender bias, (2) create safe ‘identity workspaces’ to support transitions to bigger roles, and (3) anchor women’s development efforts in a sense of leadership purpose rather than in how women are perceived. These actions will give women insight into themselves and their organizations, enabling them to more effectively chart a course to leadership.