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Collaborative leadership in voluntary organisations
Collaborative leadership in voluntary organisations

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3 Defining identity

None of these identities presented in Activity 1 in the previous section can be regarded as Ellen’s complete identity. Her identity is a combination of all of them and no doubt more. Identity was defined earlier as something that is built for you. Some people may choose to view Ellen very clearly as a rigid local government manager, for example. But identity is also something you can influence and shape as you go along – you can defy the way others position you through your practice.

How you position yourself in identity terms is a gateway to how you think of and practice leadership: it shapes you and your practice.

This is not to say that Ellen’s discretion to establish her own identity is removed in advance. To suggest this would be the equivalent of saying that she is a prisoner of the different forces and people around her. Yet not to acknowledge the huge amount of social and political pressure that exists in shaping you as a person is also naïve.

People are heavily influenced by the norms of those who bring them up – parents, siblings, close friends and those who educate. As you get older, you develop your own tastes, passions and interests. Not many of us invent these options but instead draw on a range of choices that pre-exist: you choose to identify as committed to a certain political or religious identity; you learn to name certain sexual feelings you have one thing or another; you seek out people with similar leisure interests as your own.

Likewise, you are taught to relate to certain ways of thinking about leadership in relation to your identity. Either thinking of yourself as a natural born leader, as a good, obedient follower or as something much more collaborative. How you think of leadership is closely tied to how you position yourself and how others position you.

Yet you can also break these restrictions and challenge the norms given to you by others. People challenge and influence their religious affiliations, for example: to change their perspectives on LGBT+ issues. People challenge their traditional gender roles: for example, women winning the right to vote, and now demanding equal treatment at work and in society.

An image of a woman in a blue and white dress standing by an open gate.
Figure 1 Defining identity