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Leading beyond tragedy: the balance of personal identity and adaptability

John F. McCarthy (University of New Hampshire, Manchester, New Hampshire, USA)
David J. O'Connell (College of Business, St Ambrose University, Davenport, Iowa, USA)
Douglas T. Hall (Organizational Behavior Department, Boston University School of Management, Boston, Massachusetts, USA)

Leadership & Organization Development Journal

ISSN: 0143-7739

Article publication date: 1 September 2005




As a way to understand contemporary leadership, aims to examine an organization living through tragedy and study how its leader responded to extraordinary challenges over 12 years as chief executive officer. Proposes exploring leadership behavior through the lens of paradox, where leaders face conflicting choices in their decision‐making processes.


Primary case study research was conducted through on‐site interviews, participant observation, and archival research. Building from the careers and leadership literature, illustrates how one leader sorted through key paradoxical choices and studies how his sense of personal identity and adaptability served as bedrock metacompetencies in navigating complex change.


Two metacompetencies – personal identity and adaptability – help explain how effective leaders respond to situations requiring seemingly contradictory sets of behaviors. Here, leaders navigate traumatic situations and conflict by drawing on a deep awareness of self and high levels of adaptability, knowing how to respond appropriately to crisis, and invoke behaviorally complex responses to challenges. Frames this as being evidence of “identity/adaptability balanced leadership” to offer leadership development lessons and suggest directions for future leadership research.


This research examines leadership through the metacompetencies of identity and adaptability, emphasizing the critical mutuality across both dimensions. Draws direct linkages between the careers literature and the study of leadership and presents a meaningful way to understand the complexity of contemporary leadership, especially in times of great stress. These reflections offer broadly applicable lessons that will be useful to individuals seeking to grow as leaders and to development professionals who seek to foster growth in others.



McCarthy, J.F., O'Connell, D.J. and Hall, D.T. (2005), "Leading beyond tragedy: the balance of personal identity and adaptability", Leadership & Organization Development Journal, Vol. 26 No. 6, pp. 458-475.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2005, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

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