How Great Leaders Leverage Identity

Updated: Jan 5, 2021

I work with leaders across the globe. I've coached countless numbers of them to leverage a technique that enables them to understand and explain behaviour that others just can't wrap their heads around.

Leaders I have worked with consistently provide me feedback that this technique has been one of the most useful contributions to their success in achieving desired outcomes and overcoming resistance to change.

In this post I am going to share that technique with you. It's pragmatic and immediately actionable. You'll be able to put it into practice as soon as you have completed reading it.

Leveraging it will make you a more effective leader. You will be able to see what others can't see and achieve results that evade most.


An appreciation for the identities of individuals and groups is essential to effective leadership.

Why is identity relevant?

It's relevant because you are going to find yourself in situations where behaviour you are witnessing seems unexplainable. You are going to see people doing things that just makes no sense at all and ask yourself: "Why are they behaving this way?" It will puzzle you and, on the surface, seem to have no logic that accounts for it. You might even characterize it as crazy!

When faced with this situation many leaders respond with the best of intentions by introducing change that they believe will catalyze new behaviour that "makes sense" and will displace all the inexplicable and undesirable behaviour they see around them. Their hope is that with these new changes in place they will start to see behaviour that is in alignment with the outcomes they are trying to achieve.

That doesn't seem like such an unreasonable approach does it? So why does it fail so often?

Well, the problem is that this approach will rarely produce sustained results if individual and/or group identities have not been carefully understood and considered.


Individuals and groups will ALWAYS experience and evaluate change through the lens of their individual or group identity. If the change is perceived as a threat to that identity, then they are going to reject it!

Sometimes the rejection is active (you will detect it and struggle to overcome it) and sometimes it will be passive (you won't detect it and think everything is fine until you discover it much later).

It is paramount that to successfully understand, explain, and influence behaviour you must have a keen awareness of the identities at play.

So what do I mean by individual and group identity?


As I have already alluded to, there are two aspects to identity. Let's tackle the first one which is the psychological identity of individuals.

This aspect of identity can be understood through the question: "Who are you as an individual?"

As human beings we answer that question from both an internal and external perspective. It's how we perceive ourselves to be (internal) and how we project ourselves to others (external). Both components are instrumental in forming our self-image, self-esteem, and self-worth.

As leaders who want to understand and influence individuals, we must be attentive to

who people are. We need to look for clues and take the time to discover the identities of individuals.

It is much more informative to ask: "Who are you?" instead of "Why are you

behaving this way?" The answer to the latter is to be found in the former, but many people fail to ever realize that.

So how do I know who you are?

People project their identities to us in a number of ways that we need to be on the lookout for:

  • How they introduce themselves

  • Business Cards

  • Social Media Profiles

  • Attire

  • Job Titles

  • Badges

  • Certifications

  • Credentials

  • etc....

Sound's easy right? Well, not so quick.

People often have a private hidden identity that is much more difficult to detect but is usually much more relevant to a more nuanced and accurate assessment of who they really are!


Public Identity: I'm the Head of Product Management. I manage projects and project managers. I do my best to make sure projects are delivered on-time, within budget, with the utmost quality, and to the delight of our customers. I am PMP certified and it's important to me that I uphold this standard and that it reflects in the work that I do.

Private (hidden) Identity: I'm the Queen of Fire-fighting. When there is an emergency (and we have lots of them around here) I am the one to put out the fire. If heroics are required to get this project across the line, then please give me the ball. You know you can count on me to do whatever it takes, and I want to be the first one you call and trust to deal with urgent matters.

I have to say, this particular example is quite common. Perhaps you can relate? You can see from this brief example that there can be some significant contrast between a public and private identity. As leaders it's important to recognize that often times both exist, both are valid, and understanding both are critical.

Once you have attuned yourself to an individual's identity you need to use it as a filter in your efforts to understand, explain, and influence their behaviour.

Having done that, what was previously puzzling all of a sudden makes sense and

what was previously inexplicable now seems easily understood.

Equipped with an understanding of individual identity you can be more effective as a leader in achieving your desired outcomes and helping those that you lead achieve the things that are important to them. Most importantly you do this in a manner that is not an assault on someone's self-image, self-esteem, or self-worth.


The second aspect of identity I would like to cover is that of sociological group identity. It turns out that groups also have an identity!

When considering the notion of identity, we can also ask the question: "What group(s) are you part of?"

Similar to individual identity, the groups that individuals belong to are foundational in how people value themselves and those around them. An understanding of group identity is another key in unlocking the mystery behind behaviour and what motivates people.

Human beings are social animals. We thrive in groups. In fact, it's critical to our survival. There are an endless number of groups that people belong to: sports teams, professional organizations, political parties, corporate organizations, charities, and so on.

We use groups as a mode of comparison against other people. It defines who we are and who we are not. If I am liberal, I am not a conservative. If I am a Manchester United F.C. supporter, I am not a Liverpool F.C. supporter! You get the point.

As a leader you are probably responsible for leading groups. Those groups have an identity. In addition, the people within those groups belong to other groups that also each have their own identity. It's groups and identities all the way down! There is no getting away from it.

Like individuals, you are going to encounter groups that have characteristics and behaviours that are a reflection of the identity of those groups. If you want to accurately und