There are an incredible amount of factors that contribute to the development of a great leader, but one of the most important is the way that leader understands themselves. Many leadership development programs focus on self awareness as one of the main entryways to effective leadership, and it has even become the linchpin of specific leadership theories such as Authentic Leadership and Strengths-Based Leadership. Below we use the work done by Dr. Susan Komives and her colleagues to explore a few of the stages involved in the development of a leader’s identity, regardless of their approach to leadership, in the hopes that you can begin to learn a little more about yourself as a leader.

Before anyone begins to identify as a leader they must first recognize that leadership exists in the world. Therefore awareness is the first stage of any leader’s development. Awareness usually begins in childhood when one begins to notice the existence of authority in roles such as teachers, parents, babysitters, etc. Recognizing when and where leadership occurs sets the course for anyone on the path to becoming a great leader. The transition out of this awareness stage one usually begins with recognition by an adult of the child’s leadership potential.

The next stage involves exploration and engagement in which students begin to experience themselves interacting with peers by seeking opportunities to explore their numerous interests. The concept of leadership can vary greatly across different domains and contexts and activities. As people begin to explore things like sports, clubs, jobs, and other extracurriculars they begin to be exposed to various types of leadership, and even varying types of leadership roles and responsibilities. This exploration serves to further clarify the conceptions of leadership that were beginning to form in the awareness stage.  In the transition out of this stage people begin to recognize that they have leadership potential, and this recognition is often reinforced by admired elders, older peers, and role models.

After spending time in various contexts and environments people often begin to put energy into making sure the leader is identified by a specific role, title, or position- therefore, the person in that position is the leader. If one is not the positional leader, then one is considered a follower or group member and looks to the leader for direction. The transition out of this stage involves a shift in the way one thinks about themselves in relation to others and the projects in which the leadership is taking place.

Identifying the leader is an important part of everyone’s leader development, however we can go beyond the identification with one’s role of as leadership is differentiated as a unique process of its own. In this stage people begin to see not only what an individual does as a positional leader, but also how leadership can be exhibited by nonpositional group members.  Leadership begins to be thought of as a process of which all members are a part. They do not have to be the leader to acknowledge that “I am a leader” as a stable characteristic of self. The transition out of stage four begins with a growing awareness of a passion or commitment to some transcendent goals and purposes.

When something much greater than the self becomes the primary motivator for people’s behavior there is inevitably a shift in how one conceptualizes leadership as well. Generativity is a stage of human development in which a concern for the wellbeing and development of others becomes the primary motivator in one’s life. For a leader this shows up as an ability to look beyond themselves and express a passion for their commitments and care for the welfare of others. The role as mentor and sponsor of others can lead to the transition of internalizing one’s own personal leadership identity.

Each of the stages outlined above are incredibly important to the development of every leader, and each is necessary to form a solid foundation for great leadership. The final stage involves integrating and synthesizing aspects of each stage into one coherent leadership approach. Those who make it to stage six have integrated their view of themselves as effective in working with others and have the confidence to do that in almost any context. They do not need to hold positional leader roles to know they are engaging in leadership. In addition to the interdependence of self with others in a group, one now sees the interdependence of groups within larger systems and structures which they can begin to influence and regulate.



Komives, S. R., Owen, J. E., Longerbeam, S. D., Mainella, F. C., & Osteen, L. (2005). Developing a leadership identity: A grounded theory. Journal of College Student Development, 46(6), 593-611.

Komives, S. R., Longerbeam, S. D., Owen, J. E., Mainella, F. C., & Osteen, L. (2006). A leadership identity development model: Applications from a grounded theory. Journal of College Student Development, 47(4), 401-418.