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Week 3 Working with identity, reflection and difference


Last week, you were introduced to the idea of identity as important for learning about and practising collaborative leadership in order to tackle wicked problems. This week’s focus is on ourselves as people deeply involved in leadership work. Guiding our exploration this week will be this simple question: what kind of work can we do on ourselves in order to make us more engaged and critical participants in collaborative leadership?

In order to address this question we will cover two areas. The first is how we might become more responsive and appreciative of our own identities and those that are different to ours: opening ourselves up to collaborative leadership possibilities. The second is a reflection on some important identities that seem to predominate in the voluntary sector and the potential of these identities to form the basis for collaborative work. Ellen discusses these two areas in the next section.

By the end of this week you will be able to:

  • reflect on the sources of your own professional identity
  • reflect on how your professional identity has adapted over time
  • reflect on the difference at the heart of your identity and how these differences might signal the possibility for developing new conversations and working relationships
  • describe and discuss the range of identities associated with the voluntary sector and how these may, or may not, be useful for a practice of collaborative leadership.

1 Ellen reflects on difference

Listen to another extract from Ellen’s story.

Download this audio clip.Audio player: declvo_1_audio_week3_ellen.mp3
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A tough day. It was my first experience of Family Time's 6-monthly whole organisation meetings today. That means staff, volunteers and trustees all in the room together. And it makes for an interesting mix, believe me.
The volunteers don't want changes. They want to be free to give their time and skills as works best for them. And you know what? That is completely understandable. But it might not work with the changes that I see coming. I could see a couple of them looking over at me a bit suspiciously, as if to check I'm not here to turn Family Time into a branch of social services or something.
Two of the trustees were present. And I felt as if, well they had quite a different agenda, looking to me to make changes and quickly as well. And then the staff team just looked anxious, to be honest. I don't know what's going on there. And I don't know if there's something I don't know.
I felt a little bit like a parent trying to chivvy along some unruly extended family who were looking to me for reassurance. And after that lot, I would have quite liked to slip out for a quiet lunch, or at least a Marks and Sparks sandwich. But the trustees wanted to talk over the meeting after the meeting.
And it didn't feel like a talk to me. It felt like a lecture, telling me how I needed to take a professional stance, to tell staff and volunteers that change is inevitable and force small professional working practices. And I was exhausted by the end of it all. And finished the day with some boring paperwork for a bit of light relief, to be perfectly honest.
And then driving home I began to think about what it means to have moved from being just a social worker to chief exec. And I guess I'd forgotten all the assumptions I make as a social worker. I've stopped questioning the things that matter to me, the ways of working, the accountability and line management.
And of course, I'm an inveterate people reader-- I just can't help it. It becomes second nature when you're working with vulnerable people. But I might have to stop subjecting everyone here to the same scrutiny. I suppose I hadn't quite realised that I might need to change myself as well as the organisation.
End transcript
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Ellen is getting to grips with the difference she sees around her – in her organisation, within other organisations and in the communities in which Family Time works.

Rather than assuming that others are simply wrong or wrong-headed, she is trying to open herself up to the possibility that her own identity prevents her from seeing the full range of possibilities open to her and her organisation. We will later call the mindset in which Ellen is working a ‘bicameral orientation’.

That sounds technical but it is really just an orientation to everyday thinking where we are both passionately committed to our own identities but also maintain an openness to their limitations – and therefore to the legitimate positions of others. Key to thinking in this way, we will argue, is to develop the habit of critical reflection upon one’s own identity and positioning in the world.

2 Reflecting on difference

Crucial for any form of collaborative leadership is the basic idea that it involves working closely with other people. There are two other things to bear in mind regarding collaborative leadership. First, it usually involves working with new people or groups – people we do not necessarily think of as regular, day-to-day collaborators: this is because wicked problems seem to need the input of a wide variety of perspectives. Leadership, as outlined in Week 1, involves stretching the boundaries of organisational and social problems. If problems are not to be regarded as more complex and unwieldy, then it stands to reason that they will require a broader range of people to put their minds and talents to work at these problems.

Second, and most crucially for this week, collaborative leadership means relating to other people – and ourselves – differently. Let’s take this one step at a time. In terms of ourselves, we become accustomed to thinking of ourselves in certain ways, professionally and otherwise and last week we referred to this as identity. Identity is simply a word that describes how we think of ourselves and how others think of us.

When we think about and relate to other people, we inevitably filter our impressions through the prism of our own identities. It is sometimes hard to appreciate that others will see the world very differently to us. We are each exposed to various experiences, relationships and pressures that contribute to how we think of ourselves and how we are thought of. We cannot really know what it is like to occupy the identity of another, but we can remain open to exploring what it might be like.

Bear in mind here that organisations, professions and even sectors have identities, as well as people. They develop collective – if also contested – ways of thinking about and seeing the world.

Let’s provide you with an example of how identity can shape our work: I (Owain) cannot, professionally, remove my knowledge of political discourse and language: I tend to see patterns that can be enlightening but also sometimes dispiriting. I was brought up to think of myself in the world communally, of my responsibility to others and find it hard to think of only myself and my own interests in politics. Materially, I cannot escape the fact that I, at present, live a fairly comfortable life, in a pleasant middle class neighbourhood, employed in a fulfilling job in a stable and respected organisation. My parents did not have this privilege, of course, but it is impossible for me to understand what life would have been like for my father growing up in a working class community in west Wales. I do not know what it is like to live in social housing, getting by on insecure employment, people who have felt the brunt of globalisation and tough economic times.

Does this mean that my identity is always sealed off to difference, to being able to reach out and stretch my thinking? No, of course not.

In the next section we will think about a couple of ways in which we can reflect on our own identities as a means of opening our own identities to difference.

3 Identity and difference

When we think of identity, our minds usually turn to what we are and what we identify with (be it profession, beliefs, values and so on). But let’s turn this normal way of thinking on its head for a while and consider the case that our identities are as much defined by what they are not as by what they are (Connolly, 2002).

Let’s unpack this statement with an example. Owain recently conducted some in-depth research with elected politicians and council officers in a large English local authority. The purpose of the research was to explore the journey leadership goes through as it is put into practice in a workplace. What was interesting about this research was the different ways in which people identified with the concept of leadership. For some, leadership was very much collaborative, about bringing people together in novel ways to tackle complex problems. But for others, leadership was defined as the acts of strong individuals – leadership was just a name for the collection of things a leader does (we will call this view leaderism).

What was interesting about this case is that both sets of people defined their view of leadership against a caricature of the other side. For the collaborators, people who invested in a leader-centric view were too stuck in the past and traditional. For those who believed in strong leaders over leadership, the collaborators were too interested in talk and process over action. Neither side could know its own identity outside of how it knew the identity of those people it opposed. Had both sets of people reflected on how their own identities were shaped by difference, they might have been able to open themselves up to some interesting and exciting collaborative leadership possibilities.

This example also brings to the fore the fact that identities are as much held by groups and organisations as by individuals – we can develop collective sense of identity as well as a collective orientation to difference.

The examples drawn upon are of course extreme cases but such examples do make a point. The key point is that all our identities are built as much by what they are not – by difference – as they are by any positive content. The identities of all of us always contain this element of the ‘foreign’ that helps define them (Honig, 2003). Identity is difference. Because our identities are so dependent on difference, this demonstrates that our identities are necessarily limited and always will be. They will never provide all the answers we need. We will now consider how to work with this insight in practice.

Described image
Figure 1 Who am I?

4 Identity in reflection: Developing a bicameral orientation

We will now reflect on how we can use this idea of identity being built upon difference, developing ourselves so that we can be more effective collaborators. In a nutshell, what we are aiming for is a parallel process of reflection where we come to recognise better:

  • a.the identity that we passionately hold dear
  • b.that which is different to our identity
  • c.what might enable our own identities to adapt and grow as a result of noticing their partiality and dependence on others’ (equally partial) identities.

This process of reflection and recognition is what Connolly (2005) referred to as a bicameral orientation.

There are two key points to be made. First, we need to recognise that all of our identities are highly dependent on others for their everyday functioning: we are connected to others, whether we like it or not. This recognition should spark the realisation that our identities in isolation are incapable of fully understanding the world and its problems. Second, because our identities are so relational and partial, we should try to maintain an openness and generosity to the identities of others: to really understand how they see the world and their beliefs, which are as dearly held – and as partial – as our own.

Developing a bicameral reflective approach enables us to know our own identities more rigorously. It also helps us cultivate a generosity that opens up possibilities for new conversations with colleagues. We become genuinely inquisitive of their perspectives, seeking out differences as they offer interesting and valuable possibilities for future collaboration.

Through developing an appreciation of the difference our identities are rooted within, we might also begin to develop what Connolly (2005) refers to as ‘critical responsiveness’. By this he means an appreciation and awareness of alternative views of the world and a sensitivity to other, emerging identities and perspectives.

Being attuned to difference means that we can be more open to noticing certain movements and causes outside our regular view of the world. Being critically responsive means being open to the emerging concerns of our communities. It also means developing an understanding of the work of others and how such work may find common cause with our organisations.

Now it is time for you to test this thinking in relation to yourselves and your organisations.

Activity 1 Your values and the voluntary sector

Timing: (50 minutes)

Spend 10 minutes thinking carefully about why you decided to work in the voluntary sector. Do you still feel passionately about these identifications and values? How does this identification translate into the way you see and approach your work? Spend 20 minutes making a note of your answers in your learning journal. Make sure you title the post with the week number and the number of this activity, Week 3 Activity 1.

Now spend 10 minutes thinking about the differences your professional, organisational and/or sector identities are rooted in: what are your identities defined against? Spend about 20 minutes to make a note of these in your learning journal. Does thinking about this difference offer you any clues to the kinds of groups or people you might seek out in order to better understand certain problems or issues facing your organisation or community?


We will build on this activity later this week. Thinking of our identities as rooted in difference helps to open them up to growth and should enable you to see some interesting possibilities for collaborative leadership, or at least to indicate some specific people or groups you might seek out for further conversations. Returning to the local government example provided earlier in Ellen’s story, what might have happened had our two groups with opposing views of leadership reflected more deeply on how and why they thought of leadership in certain ways? It might have opened the way for a constructive set of discussions about where each was coming from – what people valued and the kind of problems they saw leadership as tackling.

5 Identity, difference and the voluntary sector

The voluntary sector attracts such a diverse range of people – from the professionals from other areas giving their time for free, to enthusiastic and idealistic volunteers, people with deep sector expertise and to those simply volunteering to enjoy themselves and learn. These are all people who need to come together to engage in collaborative leadership.

Here are some of the work identities we think are important to the sector:

  • The volunteer: many volunteers have professional lives away from the organisation for whom they volunteer, others volunteer in the hope of building valuable skills for the future. Volunteers get involved for a variety of reasons. Some for deeply personal reasons – volunteering at a hospice, for example, because of the care given to a loved one in the past. Some people simply enjoy the social side of volunteering. Others hold certain ideological, spiritual or moral commitments that drive them to get involved. The implication is that volunteers also contribute a range of quite different things, according to their preferences and skills. Some people may also contribute professional services for free.
  • The subject expert and professional: subject experts usually undergo years of training in their areas of expertise (finance, law, human resources and so on). They usually identify with at least two different spheres, the organisation in which they work and their broader profession outside the organisation.
  • The manager: managers may start as subject experts and learn management along the way. Management comes with its own language, its own techniques and practices. Managers are generalists by definition. Few people choose in advance that they want to become managers – rather it is something that they grow into as they advance their careers.
  • The trustee: trustees can be appointed because of their professional knowledge, experience of overseeing other organisations or because of their passion for a cause. The trustee is an interesting identity because it sits somewhere between volunteer, subject expert and manager.
Described image
Figure 2 Success in the voluntary sector requires diverse identities from those working in it.

There are two key points to be made in relation to these identities. The first is that each is assembled over the years due to training and experience. The second is that none of us fits neatly into any of these boxes. We break the confines of our own identities – within our own heads and externally, in our interactions with others in collaborative leadership. It has already been noted that people become volunteers, for example, for a number of different reasons and pursue volunteering in a number of different ways. As we reflect on the difference that helps to build our identities, we appreciate even more how much our identities can be opened up, even as we remain committed to our own beliefs and values. Working and talking with others in collaborative leadership can also help us see possibilities for stretching and growing our identities.

Even if we see our work identities in certain, quite narrow ways, others do not construct our identities in this way. They see us predominantly via the filter of their own identifications. For example, Harrison et al (2012) note that the role of the charity board chair, despite the statutory obligations of such a post, are perceived in ways that exceed these boundaries. The authors note that chairs are looked upon by members of staff and volunteers for leadership, despite leadership not being in the job description. Chairs are also expected to demonstrate a range of ‘softer’ behaviours (emotional intelligence, affinity for teamwork) not normally associated with this role.

In other words, identities, even professional ones, are capable of growth, and it is worth us reflecting on whether we are able to make the most of the diverse identities housed within our organisations - and beyond in our collaborative leadership work.

Now watch the following video, an interview with Alison Miller, Chief Executive, and John Wallace, Chair, of St Francis’ Children’s Society. In the video Alison and John reflect on how they work within their identities as chief executive and chair.

Download this video clip.Video player: declvo_1_video_week3_interview_miller_wallace.mp4
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As CEO and chair in a relatively small organisation, working together is very important. We have to trust each other. We have to be honest with each other. And we have to present a united front to the trustees and to the staff group in order to move the organisation forward. It's a form of shared leadership, really. I think if a chair chose to interfere too much, it could be very difficult, which is why you need to have that trust in collaborative working and be clear what each person's role is.
Yeah, I think it's most important that the chair and chief exec do work together. The danger in many cases is that chairs might want to interfere and micro-manage the organisation. That isn't their role. My role is a supporter of the chief exec in carrying forward the aims of the society for the good of the children and their parents, their adoptive parents.
I view my role-- perhaps it's a bit of a hackneyed phrase, the critical friend, so that I don't necessarily, wouldn't necessarily, rubber stamp everything which Allison wanted. And if there were times of conflict, we will discuss them and discuss the best way forward.
I think sometimes it is challenging to decide how much to inform the chair of trustees and how much is just dealt with on a day-to-day basis. I think it’s good to keep the chair informed of some of the day-to-day stuff, because I think it gives a flavour of the kind of challenges that I'm dealing with, and also some of the joy of it.
So for example, when we've placed a group of children or we've seen a particular child grow and develop, telling those nice stories I think is also very important. Because it keeps the child central in everything that we do.
I think probably because I've been involved working in local government and various policy issues with central government, the unexpected is so expected that I'm used to dealing with it. Obviously, if something unexpected cropped up, Allison would let me know and I would use my experience to work through with Allison the answer to the problem.
I think an example of dealing with the unexpected was several court rulings a couple of years ago where the plans for adoption were questioned by some fairly eminent judges. We were in the middle of expansion, and a lot of the voluntary adoption agencies were expanding because there was increased demand for adoption placements. And suddenly it dropped by 50 per cent.
We are now through the challenges of that. And John has worked-- he supported me through all of that. And we're now at the point where we can look forward as an organisation, that the number of children we're placing has increased significantly. Financially, we are in a much better position than we were. But I believe that it's the relationship between the chief executive and chair of trustees that's been key in managing what was a very difficult period of time and will set us well for going forward in the future.
End transcript
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John and Alison talk explicitly about their shared leadership but as we know, these things are simpler in principle than practice. Voluntary organisations are a mix of very diverse people and identities. John refers to himself as a ‘critical friend’, which is a powerful way of saying that good chairs will feel able to offer constructive critique (you will learn more about this in Week 5). Offering critique from a position of difference is an important part of collaborative leadership. Most importantly, Alison and John talk about building and nurturing personal relationships of trust. Putting the work in at this level enables them to tackle difficult problems when they arise and make the most of their diverse identities in practice. With that in mind, you will now move on to think about ways in which voluntary organisations can draw on the strengths of diverse identities.

6 Making the most of diverse identities

We can now propose some ways in which voluntary organisations can make the most of the diverse identities housed within them and beyond them.

  • Allowing time and space for people to express themselves. This sounds somewhat obvious, but it is easy to get caught up in the busy environment of everyday organisational life. If people aren’t given opportunities to express themselves, then often their valuable perspectives and life experiences may not even known about in the first place. Of course, tasks in organisations need to be completed, but allowing time and space for informal conversation is important too, whether at a regular communal tea or a more structured idea sharing session.
  • Introducing some collective decision-making. Some organisational managers will say that they consult staff or stress the importance of communicating decisions to staff and volunteers. These are all minimalist approaches, with a strong hierarchy still directing decisions: the agenda, and often the substantive decision, is already framed in advance. We cannot really refer to this way of working as particularly democratic, as almost all of the power still resides with top management.
  • Introducing a more participative approach to discussion and decisions. Such approaches are often referred to as deliberative practices. They allow people the opportunity to come together to shape how an issue is perceived and how it should be tackled. Deliberative democrats emphasise the need for rational debate based on strong, balanced evidence. Important in this approach is a measure of good faith: that a process is being used genuinely in order to gain the best possible decision, rather than being used to further someone’s existing opinion or interests. This is a hard request to make of people and whether or not genuine good faith is ever truly achieved is questionable. Perhaps the challenge for us is to become better at identifying examples of good and bad faith in practice.
  • Paying attention to silence: some people are less comfortable than others at speaking up in public forums, which is perfectly natural. Yet it should be a matter of concern when some people are routinely silent. Not everyone is comfortable speaking in meetings and these people need to be approached for their views in less formal contexts. Likewise, some organisational functions are valued more than others within organisations. Meetings can be dominated by a particular function at the expense of others, so it is worth thinking about whether all aspects of an organisation are being offered the time and space they need for expression.
  • Avoiding being dominated by functional thinking: the functions of organisations are usually expert-led, but just because one person has spent years doing a certain type of work, does not mean others in the organisation might not have some valuable perspectives to share. In fact, very often hearing from someone outside a particular function can inject an important fresh perspective.

The key point with all of these approaches is that they can help us see beyond the boundaries of the identities we establish for ourselves and our organisations: their aim is to put together a range of perspectives in order to generate something new.

Activity 2 Seeking out difference

Timing: (40 minutes)

Building on your insights in this week’s learning journal, spend 15 minutes thinking about someone either in your organisation, your community or another organisation that you think offers a very different perspective on an issue you think your organisation could help to address. Ask that person for their view, emphasising that they can help stretch your thinking and enrich your perspective as a practitioner. Spend 20 minutes writing about your experience in the discussion forum. Then spend 5 minutes commenting on the posts of two other learners.


Engaging with people at the level of identity necessarily means that you are exploring issues and ideas in ways that exceed the everyday activity and detail of an organisation. You come together with an ethos of openness and generosity. You should also share a critical commitment to probe the limits of one another’s identities. Exploring the world in this way provides the foundations for a successful collaborative leadership endeavour, one that engages with important values and issues, rather than something far more instrumental.

Developing a bicameral orientation to identity is an important reflective practice. It means maintaining a strong commitment to your own identity but also recognising that identity is rooted in difference and so is also only a partial account of the world. Being bicameral therefore means that you stay open to the possibilities and learning of others: you operate at a level of generosity towards others and their identities. It means seeking out opportunities to learn from others – people from other faiths, other ideologies, other professions, other organisations. Engaging with someone at the level of identity means that you begin to explore issues and problems at a deep and sophisticated level; you begin to appreciate new possibilities, while also developing a deeper appreciation and understanding of your own commitments.

Week 3 quiz

Check what you’ve learned this week by taking the end-of-week quiz.

Week 3 quiz

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Summary of Week 3

This week, we covered the importance to leadership practice of reflecting on our identities and those of others. You were asked to think carefully (and critically) about your own identities and your reasons for doing what you do within the voluntary sector. Such identifications help to guide us, they provide an ethical anchor for our leadership work. Nevertheless, it was noted that all identities are ultimately rooted in difference, that it is impossible to know of our identities outside of what they are defined against. Such an insight underlines the fact that no identity is fully capable of capturing the full richness of human experience. Although a challenging idea, this is also encouraging when planning collaborative leadership work, as it seems as if we are already reliant on others.

We have already noted that relying on others and bringing others together is important in tackling wicked problems. Bearing this in mind, we also thought about the range of identities often associated with the voluntary sector, stating that while important, these categories also conceal a range of subtlety and degrees of variation. The intimate connection between identity and difference, and the fundamentally relational character of all identity, identifies potential for collaborative leadership work. It is by maintaining a commitment to our own values, but also to learning from the identities of others, that interesting and fresh collaborative opportunities might emerge.

Now go to Week 4.

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Connolly, W. (2002) Identity\difference: Democratic negotiations of political paradox, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press.
Connolly, W. (2005) Pluralism, Durham, NC, Duke University Press.
Harrison, Y., Murray, V. and Cornforth, C. (2012) ‘Perceptions of board chair leadership effectiveness in non-profit and voluntary sector organizations’, Voluntas: International Journal of Voluntary Nonprofit Organizations, vol. 24, no. 3, pp. 688-712.
Honig, B. (2003) Democracy and the foreigner, Princeton, New Jersey, Princeton University Press.


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