The Leadership Persona: what it is and why you need one
In the 1950s and 60s, one of the most popular courses among business students at Berkeley and the University of Pennsylvania was actually an Anthropology and Sociology class, taught by a professor named Erving Goffman. Why were throngs of business students clamoring to enroll in this course?
Let’s start with the professor. Erving Goffman is widely considered one of the most influential sociologists of the 20th century and he made his mark in his first book, now a classic in that field, called the The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. In this book, Goffman describes how all actions are social performances that aim to convey and maintain impressions of oneself to others. We are, in essence, actors on a stage performing to an audience. We play different roles depending on whom the audience is: our friends, our family, our colleagues, our supervisors, etc. And we employ varied and different techniques in order to successfully sustain our performance to our given audience.
Goffman refers to these roles as Personas (derived from the Latin reference to a theatrical mask) which are comprised of the combination of techniques we use to effectively perform.
Although these roles are all “you,” they are and should be different. By being intentional and self-aware about our personas, we can ensure we are showing up in a way that is both optimally effective given the role we are in and authentic to who we are.
So, those hundreds of business students were coming to learn how to construct their most effective role for success in their careers -- as well as gain an advantage over those who weren’t doing so consciously.
When I founded and led my first organization, I had many conflicting and often cliche ideas of what an effective “leader” was. I had read a lot of leadership theory and seen a lot of movies. So when it came to my own leadership opportunity, I thought I had to work myself to exhaustion, be “the first one there and last one to leave.” I thought I had to gain consensus for every decision. I thought I had to be Mel Gibson in Braveheart and make passionate speeches before going into daily battle. I often felt inauthentic, ineffective, and wiped from trying to be all things to all people. And because I didn’t really know who I was as the leader of this organization, I think my employees were often confused about what I was communicating to them, since they were experiencing conflicting “greatest hits” styles of others’ leadership roles. This was because I lacked my own Leadership Persona.
A Leadership Persona
A Leadership Persona is the intentional role we play as someone leading a team, an organization, or any effort that requires us to mobilize others to a common goal. It asks us to define ourselves as a leader, to think about qualities we most admire in other leaders as well as those we admire most about ourselves. It includes the deeper purpose of identifying the source our leadership and the essential values that guide our behavior. It asks us to consider the type and quality of relationships we have with those we work with, the behaviors we will strive to model for our teams, how we will make decisions and give feedback, the ways in which we will manage work-life balance, and how we will respond in the most challenging leadership situations. It even asks us to consider how we will dress (i.e. what costume, literally, we will wear for our leadership performance).
I work with leaders to reflect on and address these key components of who they are and really want to be as a leader. And I have found time and again, the result of designing a Leadership Persona is a happier, more authentic, more sustainable, and ultimately more effective leader.
If you want to continue this journey with a partner to practice, consider working with me as an Executive Coach. You can get in touch with me here.