Rethinking the Psychology of Leadership

Because leadership mobilizes people and focuses them on the achievement of cherished goals … it is highly prized and a major focus of academic and public debate. In light of this, two key questions have fascinated scholars and commentators for over two millennia : What makes people effective leaders? And, if we discover this, can we train others to be effective leaders themselves?

There are close to one thousand different degree courses in leadership in the United States alone, and it is estimated that U.S. companies spend around $14 billion a year on leadership training. Given all this information and knowledge, it might seem arrogant, if not fool hardy, to suggest that there is a need to fundamentally rethink the nature of leadership ….but that is precisely what [this essay] suggest[s].

“Whereas the existing leadership literature tends almost universally to see the psychology of leadership as an I thing,” this article endeavours to show that “it is actually a we thing.”

First, leadership is a process, not a property, and it is more akin to a verb than a noun. Accordingly, it is not some thing that a person possesses, but rather something that he or she does. Second, leadership can never be something that a person does on his or her own precisely because it requires the mobilization of others. It necessarily encompasses other people beyond the leader…. [therefore the] ultimate proof of leadership … is follower-ship. It is about taking people with you so that they want to follow and do so with enthusiasm, rather than beating them with a stick (or offering a carrot) so that they participate grudgingly.

Plato is commonly acknowledged as having provided, around 380 BC, the first formal analysis of leadership. As Heraclitus …. described the rarity of a leader as follows…. “The many are worthless, good men are few. One man in ten thousand if he is the best.” The two attributes [of leadership] that …. most appeal are charisma and intelligence. Vision (however brilliant) and empathy (however authentic) are not enough to guarantee success.

The article outlines some limitations of classical and contemporary approaches to the concept of leadership and raises the key contention of the new psychology of leadership is that …. by addressing leaders’ and followers’ conceptions of themselves and each other as group members – we draw on the social identity …. as the starting point for understanding processes within and between social groups. However, given the choice, we would not turn to just any old group member. The more we see someone as knowledgeable about the group culture .… the more we will follow what such people say.

In summing up the article Haslam emphasiz[ed] three significant points that emerge from the social identity approach to leadership.

The first is that, when it is effective, leadership can never be the exclusive preserve of leaders. Leaders …. need loyal lieutenants to engage in these processes … [and] ordinary group members to do the same.

Leadership …. can never be exclusively perceptual or rhetorical. It must also be material. Leaders need to talk the talk of identity and mobilize followers around a collective sense of “who we are” and “what we are about.”

A final point about the dangers of imagining that leadership is an exclusively positive process….. that …. we are generally inclined to see leadership as inherently virtuous. The question of what makes leadership normatively good or bad…. is a matter of identity content and of identity process. The way in which group boundaries and the group values are defined are critical.

[Haslam argues] this holds true from democratic leadership (where leaders guide a collective conversation about “who we are”) to hierarchical leadership (where leaders claim special access to the definition of group identity, but do not exclude the participation of the population) to authoritarian leadership (where leaders claim to so embody the group that any criticism of them is seen as an attack on the group).

Although the new psychology of leadership is intended primarily to offer an analytic approach, [Haslam hopes]it can be directed to democratic and inclusive normative ends.

Source Material Rethinking the Psychology of Leadership: From Personal Identity to Social Identity
Author(s): S. Alexander Haslam and Stephen D. Reicher
Source: Daedalus, Vol. 145, No. 3, On Political Leadership (Summer 2016), pp. 21-34
Published by: The MIT Press on behalf of American Academy of Arts & Sciences Stable URL: Accessed: 02-08-2021 15:53 UTC

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