Article Critique: Learning to Lead: Foundations of Emerging Leader Identity Development

October 15, 2016

Yeager, K. L., & Callahan, J. L. (2016). Learning to lead: Foundations of emerging leader identity development. Advances in Developing Human Resources, 1523422316645510.

The Problem: Organizations face several challenges that stand poised to place a significant strain on the availability of qualified leaders. Flatter organization structures, the use of more teams, and impending retirements of the Baby Boomer generation mean that the field of human resource development (HRD) must be prepared to help organizations develop the next generation of leaders. Scholars and practitioners must ensure that leader development initiatives will effectively prepare the forthcoming leaders from among young adults.

The Solution: The focus of this study was to develop an understanding of how leadership experiences shape leader identity development. We offer a model that explains the dynamic, interactive process of leader identity development. Specifically, this model identifies the importance of relationships, leading by example, authenticity, and the motivation to lead for young adults.

The Stakeholders: HRD scholars and practitioners may use the findings in this study to target developmental initiatives for future leaders.

Yesterday, I spent time with Dr. Nisha Manikoth at George Washington University in the campus community center. She mentioned the importance of reflecting on learning and communicating that learning to others in accessible ways. Unfortunately (or fortunately), a small percentage of people read academic journal articles. In some ways, it’s up to those invested enough to spend time reading those articles to share compelling findings with others in our communities. This is what I’m trying–somewhat feebly–to do in these article critique blog posts.

Advances in Developing Human Resources, or Advances for short, is one of the four refereed research journals sponsored by the Academy of Human Resource Development (AHRD). This article was written by Katherine Yeager and Jamie Callahan, the latter of whom I met in Ireland at the UFHRD conference in 2015 and have since gotten to know better, which made me excited to read this article.

On to the article!

In this day and age, many employers expect candidates to have certain leadership qualities before entering the workforce. This reality inspired the researchers to look at young leaders (aged 18-20) to find out what kinds of experiences these young leaders had and how those experiences influenced their identities as leaders. This is a phenomenological study, which is a fancy way of saying that they conducted in-depth interviews to learn more about the lived experiences of the participants. They used a technique  (Seidman, 2006) of conducting three interviews with each participant to build rapport with the participants and really dive deeply into their experiences. I thought this technique was particularly justified considering the study.

What did they find?

The researchers found the experiences that most affected these young leaders’ identities were “developing relationships with others, leading by example, developing leader authenticity, and being motivated to lead” (p. 289).  The researchers created a nice model and expounded on these themes but I thought I would share what I found particularly interesting.

Firstly, young leaders learn to lead by observing the example of leaders in their communities. As they begin integrating these leadership qualities in their lives, the young leaders begin feeling like leaders and in turn are treated as leaders by others. It sounds obvious, but having relationships with leaders and emulating them leads to leader identity development.

They also found that leader authenticity was important to developing leader identity. The young leaders associated “integrity and character” with what it means to be a leader. The more they embodied those characteristics, the more their own identity as leaders emerged. The fact that we associate integrity and character with leadership may just be a cultural construction, but it’s my hunch that these qualities transcend culture in many ways. Think about the importance of integrity and character for developing relationships, trust, and cooperation all of which have been vital for the development and survival of our species.

There are many more interesting discussion points that emerge from this article, and I truly enjoyed reading it. I also thought it was interesting in that it looked at 18-20 year-olds since most HRD literature consists of older adults in the workforce. I wonder, as HRD continues to expand, if more leadership research will extend into earlier years of life.


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