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Follow up on Making Social Identity Part of Community Leadership Development Webinar: Guest Blog Post by Kelly Hannum

Note: This is a follow up article for the recent webinar on Making Social Identity Part of Community Leadership Development, featuring Kelly HannumTim Leisman, and Stephanie Walker of Center for Creative Leadership®

Learning Leadership Together


I’ve called the Leadership Learning Community (LLC) one of my “homes” for over a decade.  LLC has allowed me to participate in a learning environment that unleashes innovative thinking by tapping into broad perspectives and creating a welcoming place for people to share lessons, tackle tough problems, and think together about new frontiers. It’s a community open to new ideas and where I have gotten or refined ideas. I have the privilege to work for an organization, the Center for Creative Leadership, focused on leadership development. I am surrounded by people who know a lot about, and have a lot of experience, in leadership development across sectors, across countries, across ages, across about anything you can think of, but there’s nothing like LLC to round out my thinking. I recently co-hosted a webinar for the Leadership Learning Community monthly webinar series about a project I am working on that is developing a curriculum that applies social identity concepts within a community leadership development program. More specifically, we aim to build awareness about social identity dynamics in people and communities to help enable individuals and groups to work together more effectively in order to achieve “common good” community outcomes. It is not easy stuff. Open networks where we can come together to share information, provide support for each other, and challenge ourselves to think in new ways (or at least become aware of new perspectives) are one of the best ways I know of to tackle some of the complex issues we face in a transparent and more inclusive way.


The webinar reinforced for me the importance of (and complexity of) including social identity work in leadership development and of doing that work across levels.  One of the ways I’ve been organizing my thinking is into three broad levels related to the nature of the work:


1)            Self-work. This is the work we do to increase self-awareness about our own identity and the connections between our identity and our ideas about and practice of leadership. The work is about crafting a leader identity and being intentional/authentic about our leadership practices. It can also be about recognizing the limits of our experiences and perspectives. There are experiences that others have had that are not and will not be part of your experience, and conversely, you have had experiences (and have developed perspectives based on them) that others have not. We are all influenced by the people and systems we interact with.  If we don’t disrupt and reflect on that influence we end up making assumptions, interpretations, and drawing conclusions about ourselves, others, and situations that are rife with inaccuracy and therefore at best not particularly effective; or, even worse, potentially harmful.


2)            Other-work. This is the work we do to reframe how we see others and how we are in relationship with others. From earlier work on a research project called Leadership Across Differences, I know that treating people with respect is core to effective leadership and one of the best ways to navigate social identity tensions and conflict. But very little is known about what respect actually looks like behaviorally. Respect is often seen as the absence of disrespect. It isn’t. Similar to the notion that inclusion is not the absence of exclusion; it is related to but not the same thing. Respect is the active consideration of others. It involves the almost constant re-examining of others and creating the opportunity for someone else to influence your judgment about them. After all, respect literally means to look again.  (You can read more about respect in a chapter I co-authored with Sarah Glover in Political and Civic Leadership: A Reference Handbook)

3)            Context-work. This is the work we do to better understand the forces that shape and are shaped by social identity dynamics. It includes everything from cultural and social values and norms to institutional systems (such as education, healthcare, legal systems, government, etc.). If you’ve ever heard the phrase “well, that’s just the way it is,” well not really, that’s the way we made it or that it was made. Context work is about recognizing that norms and institutions play an active role in our lives and that they are not unbiased static systems. We can play an active role in shaping our contexts by understanding the role they play and engaging with others to create change. An example of this is the debates and changes we are seeing related to laws – about voting, about marriage, pregnancy, birth control, self-defense, etc. Many of these debates are filled with emotion because at the root people are fighting for what they believe is right and just based on their social identity and what they believe to be true about other identity groups. If you read the comments for almost any online story related to changes to these legal challenges you will not have to read far to recognize that they are tapping into and evoking strong “us” versus “them” dynamics and stereotypes about groups. Identifying, discussing, and changing social identity dynamics is increasingly an essential function of leadership.


Focusing on any of the levels above can be beneficial, but purposefully working across them is where real change happens. That said, very few leadership development programs can afford to dig into all of the above with all the stakeholders it would be helpful to include – so we have to do it as a field by sharing information about the work we are doing to help connect efforts and to be thoughtful about the limits and opportunities in our own work and in our own leadership. We can push ourselves and the field.  I hope we look back in twenty years and gawk at how naïve and unsophisticated our understanding of social identity and leadership was. But to get to that place, we have to do the work to better understand how we can develop leaders from a wider variety of social identity groups and create more evenly distributed opportunities for leadership to tackle complex challenges and create positive change.