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Psychodynamic Obstacles to Becoming a Leader

Seeing oneself as a leader is often a first step to behaving as a leader, but new research detailed in an Academy of Management Journal article sheds light on a psychodynamic process that makes it difficult to cultivate this identity. The results of four studies involving nearly 2,000 participants demonstrate that, when people believe that leading could harm their reputation, it is experienced as an ego threat. In response, people not only fail to act as leaders but also deny that ‘leader’ is a part of their identity. This allows people to attribute their inaction to the idea that “I’m just not a leader” rather than the more humbling admission that “I am afraid of what others think of me.”

Authors Julia Lee Cunningham, Laura Sonday, and Sue Ashford identified three specific image concerns that were particularly salient for full-time workers and Air Force cadets included in their study:

  • Fear of seeming bossy – The most frequently referenced concern with identifying as a leader was being seen as bossy, domineering, undemocratic, or selfish. This fear was articulated by both men and women and seemed to be driven by enduring associations between leadership and autocracy.

  • Fear of seeming unqualified – Study participants also expressed a concern that claiming a leader identity would be seen by others as unmerited, either because they didn’t have the right personality for leadership, or because they didn’t have adequate credentials or experience to be leaders.

  • Fear of seeming different – A third category of image fears related to not wanting to seem different from the rest of the group, even for good qualities. Study participants mentioned not wanting to be in the spotlight or put on a pedestal. This fear seemed to reflect the old adage, “It’s lonely at the top.”

These metaperceptions— beliefs about how others view the self— are detrimental to leader development. The more study participants perceived these risks, the less likely they were to identify and act as leaders.

The authors also explored how people might overcome the negative effect of image risk on leading. They theorized and found support that adopting a malleable view of leadership can circumvent ego protection in the face of image risk. For study participants who believed that leadership was a skill that could be developed over time rather than a personality or capacity that one is born with, the negative effect of image risk on leader identity and leader emergence did not hold. This suggests that managers can affect the level of leadership in organizations by reinforcing the idea that leadership is a skill set that everyone can cultivate.

This research suggests that confronting image concerns is essential to becoming a leader. While it is normal to have reputational fears about leading, those fears can stifle would-be leaders if they are not properly managed. By reinforcing the message that leadership is a skill that people can improve over time and that mistakes are a normal part of the learning process, managers can affect the degree to which individuals are able to step up and lead.

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