Robert Quinn

Identity, Destiny and the Birth of Leadership, a Guest Post from Dr. Robert Quinn

Robert Quinn, Ph.D. Ethics, Leadership, Values-Driven Leaders

Editor’s Note:

This March, Dr. Robert Quinn will be the keynote speaker at our Senior Executive Roundtable, Becoming Who You Really Are: Learning To Do What Organizations Cannot Do For You. Below we feature a post previously published on Dr. Quinn’s blog. Enjoy his insights, then plan to join us this March 2. Details below. 

Robert QuinnIn recent months, I have been watching the transformation of a man and his organization.

He is becoming more alive and so is the organization. Instead of managing the organization, he is beginning to lead it. Energy is expanding. People are beginning to flourish and exceed expectations. My conversations with him cause me to ponder the notions of identity, destiny, and the birth of leadership.

My identity is what I believe about myself. It is a theory that answers the question; who am I? My destiny is what I believe about my future. It is a theory of my prospective self and what it might create. It answers the question, what will I contribute, and what will I become?

My answers are interconnected. What I believe about my identity tends to shape what I believe about my destiny, and what I believe about my destiny tends to shape what I believe about my identity.

One powerful way for us to alter identity is to clarify our highest purpose. When we do this, it alters our sense of destiny. As we orient to an intention higher than self, we move into a contributive orientation.

Our identity and destiny tend to come from our culture. We enter a role like the role of manager and we respond to expectations. In this process, the managerial self becomes an extension of the culture. Following the culture or shared governing rules, the manager uses authority and expertise to maintain order and solve problems.

The manager thus preserves the culture that determines the manager’s identity. Culture and managerial identity tend to be self-reinforcing. The reliance on “what is” narrows awareness and preserves the status quo. There is a bias away from what “could be.” Prospection has a limited role in the managerial orientation.

Through crisis or through deep reflection, a manager may transform. The manager confronts the questions of identity and destiny: who am I, what do I really value, what is my highest purpose, and to what end should I be moving?

Conscience calls the manager to higher purpose. Higher purpose transcends self-interest, and moves the manager from an orientation of acquisition to an orientation of contribution. The manager finds meaning and motivation.

A new identity forms. It is an identity independent of the culture. An external locus of control becomes an internal locus of control and the manager becomes free, a being with some separation from the culture.

Most cultures are products of the past. When a manager is transformed into a leader, the leader begins to shape and align the culture to the highest collective purpose, to the most desirable future. This shifts the system from knowing to learning, and it infuses the system with hope and renewed energy.

Identity and destiny matter. We are all extensions of the culture. We work to preserve the past, collective beliefs. If we clarify our purpose, we become a leader who stimulates learning and integrates it with the best of the past. We become like the man I have been observing. We become more alive. The organization becomes more alive. The people begin to flourish and exceed expectations. They find a new destiny and a new identity.


  • What is my destiny?
  • What is my identity?
  • What is the shared destiny and identity of my people?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

Leadership Development | Dr. Robert Quinn

Join us March 2, 2018, at our next Senior Executive Roundtable featuring Dr. Robert Quinn.

Dr. Quinn is professor emeritus with University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business and a co-founder of the Center for Positive Organizations. He is a global leader in the study of culture, values, leadership, and positive organizational scholarship, and is the author of seminal articles and books including Deep Change: Discovering the Leader Within and Change the World: How Ordinary People Can Achieve Extraordinary Results.

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