It is no surprise in today’s hyper-competitive world that we employ marketing terms to make sense of things. This is evident in one facet of leadership development, where the idea of a leader’s individual brand is touted as means for both measuring and developing individuals as leaders within a company. The problem is that branding one’s personal leadership can shortchange how we coach and develop leaders. We raise these issues not for semantic reasons but because the way we conceptualize leadership development is critical to how we either impede or bolster individuals—and by extension—the organizations they lead. In what follows, we challenge the discourse of leadership development with specific ways to move beyond the limited practice of personal branding.

The Appeal of Conceptualizing Leadership as a Brand

The deep interest and personal practice of branding leadership are pervasive. The notion of leadership functioning as a brand is largely unquestioned, and countless leadership development professionals dedicate time to bolstering their clients’ leadership brands. This work often includes self-reflection exercises and 360 feedback to help individuals articulate how they see themselves, as well as understand how others perceive them. MBA students are also caught up in this trend and often spend their two years in an MBA program developing, refining, and promoting their personal brand. All this work is distilled into personal slogans that read like bumper stickers and sound like elevator pitches.

What is so appealing about a leadership brand to MBA students and organizational leaders alike? First, it is a seemingly succinct expression of who the leader perceives himself/herself to be. Like a sales pitch, it attempts to capture in a short statement or slogan the essence of a leader’s identity. Branding appears to have the advantage of being easy to remember and quick to communicate. Secondly, a leadership brand is upbeat, positive, and solely focuses on one’s strengths.

Thirdly, it includes references through wording or direct associations that link the leader to powerful ideas, markers of status, or prestigious relationships. Branding can be rhetorically effective in landing jobs, securing promotions, and differentiating oneself among a pack of other candidates.

The Fundamental Problems with Conceptualizing Leadership as a Brand

Problem 1: Leadership Branding is Old-Fashioned by Today’s Branding Standards

Leadership branding, as practiced in leadership development, reflects how product branding was led before the post-nineties information age. The industrial revolution unlocked the capability of mass production, which in turn, bolstered a need for marketing at scale. Marketers competed fiercely to win favor with consumers—and in turn, consumers grew dependent on branding as a handy aid in deciding on purchases. This is where personal leadership branding is stuck. Whereas branding as a general practice in marketing has further evolved in the information age. Now, most branding efforts have expanded beyond one-way (company-to-customer) communication to facilitate broader public dialogues between companies and consumers. Branding is now less one-dimensional as the effort spans platforms where influencers carry clout.

To sum this up, branding one’s personal leadership, as it is practiced and coached today, is old-fashioned in comparison to how branding works in modern marketing. This limitation shortchanges the important evolutionary shift evident in company branding—specifically, where companies find ways to engage a myriad of stakeholders in a broader public discussion of brand identity. By contrast, leadership branding efforts resemble the one-way branding efforts of yesteryear, where leaders attempt to aspire to a static and one-dimensional essence, as if not any more dynamic than a box of Tide.

Problem 2: Leadership Branding Shortchanges the Bigger Picture

Another problem with building personal leadership brands is the practice obscures and hides the many dimensions of the person behind the brand. Human beings are complex, have multiple group and social identities, and bring to every interaction a range of experiences, understandings, and feelings.

Reducing a person to a brand unwittingly makes the person one-dimensionally flat. The practice of creating a personal leadership brand freezes the person in time.

“Branding one’s personal leadership, as it is practiced and coached today, is old-fashioned in comparison to how branding works in modern marketing.”

Human beings are not static beings nor capable of being encapsulated in a slogan. Rather, leaders are always changing and developing with aspirations and through multi-faceted experiences. Furthermore, leaders behave differently according to the environment, context, and new experiences. Thus, a personal leadership brand fails to consider the fundamentally human phenomena of learning and developing. Organizations operate amidst a rapidly ever-changing world, and the multidimensional nature of individuals is imperative for them to operate effectively. Perhaps the worst feature of a leadership brand is that it implies that a person is like a commodity and can be used, bought, sold, etc. A leadership brand reinforces a transactional mindset which is the opposite of what most leaders want to convey.  

How to Evolve Leadership Development Beyond Brand

While we pragmatically acknowledge personal branding will likely endure as a technique for self-promotion, we offer ways to elevate leadership discussions.

Let’s start by acknowledging that personal branding is insufficient for forging substantive relationships. Simply being aware of this limitation will encourage fuller conversations geared toward building deeper connections. One way to advance conversations beyond brand is to include a directional element. Broadening the discussion to include where one is heading is a way to acknowledge that we are all dynamically evolving.

Next, it is important to incorporate how we acknowledge teams and networks to consider individual leadership and performance. Understanding and celebrating those instrumental in one’s success along the way is not only more compelling (and refreshing), it is a better way of illustrating how one works and succeeds. Put simply: heavy self-promotion is off-putting, whereas gratitude is not.

Finally, let’s not lose sight of Simon Sinek’s sage wisdom of what differentiates top companies from others, as it also applies to the way we frame individual talent. In his seminal book Start with the Why, Sinek explains that elite companies lead with why they exist before detailing what they do or how they work. First, understanding personal motivations and moving beyond simply what individuals do and how they work enriches the way to discuss and consider talent.

Modern life often minimizes our abilities, complexities, and growth.

Let’s stop contributing to this by using leadership brands to reduce our human capabilities to a slogan. 

S. Sinek, “Start with why: how great leaders get everyone on the same page,” (New York: Portfolio, 2009).

Eric Harper, Ed.D., is adjunct faculty at the University of Texas at Dallas and head of talent and learning for a privately held company in the apparel industry.

Dana Kaminstein, Ph.D., is an Affiliated Faculty Member in the Organizational Dynamics Program and an Adjunct Assistant Professor at the Graduate School of Education, University of Pennsylvania.