Kemo D. (kemo_d7) wrote,
Kemo D.

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The New Psychology of Leadership

Recent research in psychology points to secrets of effective leadership that radically challenge conventional wisdom.

In the past, leadership scholars considered charisma, intelligence and other personality traits to be the key to effective leadership. 

Accordingly, these academics thought that good leaders use their inborn talents to dominate followers and tell them what to do, with the goal either of injecting them with enthusiasm and willpower that they would otherwise lack or of enforcing compliance. Such theories suggest that leaders with sufficient character and will can triumph over whatever reality they confront.

In recent years, however, a new picture of leadership has emerged, one that better accounts for leadership performance. 

In this alternative view, effective leaders must work to understand the values and opinions of their followers—rather than assuming absolute authority—to enable a productive dialogue with followers about what the group embodies and stands for and thus how it should act. By leadership, we mean the ability to shape what followers actually want to do, not the act of enforcing compliance using rewards and punishments.


Given that good leadership depends on constituent cooperation and support, this new psychology of leadership negates the notion that leadership is exclusively a top-down process. In fact, it suggests that to gain credibility among followers, leaders must try to position themselves among the group rather than above it. In his use of everyday language—such as “hunt down” and “those folks”—Bush portrayed himself on 9/11 as a typical American able to speak for America.


According to this new approach, no fixed set of personality traits can assure good leadership because the most desirable traits depend on the nature of the group being led. Leaders can even select the traits they want to project to followers. 

It is no accident, then, that Bush has often come across to Americans as a regular guy rather than as the scion of an elite
East Coast Yale University dynasty. But far from simply adopting a group’s identity, influential presidents or chief executives who employ this approach work to shape that identity for their own ends. Thus, Bush helped to resolve the mass confusion on 9/11 in a way that promoted and helped to forge a new national unity.


An identity that is out of kilter with reality and that has no prospect of being realized, on the other hand, will soon be discarded in favor of more viable alternatives. Our study provided a stark warning as to what happens if a leader’s vision is not accompanied by a strategy for turning that vision into reality. In this study the collapse of the guard system led participants to set up a commune whose members believed passionately in equality. But the commune’s leaders failed to establish structures that either promoted equality or controlled those who challenged the system.


In the end, the commune also tottered, and the enduring inequality led even the most committed to lose faith. They began to believe in a hierarchical world and turned to a tyrannical model of leadership that would bring their vision into being.


The wise leader is not simply attuned to making identities real but also helps followers experience identities as real. In this vein, rituals and symbols provide perspective by reproducing a dramatized representation of the world in miniature. 

In her book Festivals and the French Revolution (reprinted by Harvard University Press in 1991), Mona Ozouf, director of research at the French National Center for Scientific Research, writes that the revolutionaries fashioned a whole new set of festivals to symbolize a France based on “liberty, equality, fraternity.”


In the past, people had paraded according to social rank, but now rich and poor paraded together, organized by age instead. In contrast, Adolf Hitler choreographed his Nuremberg rallies to portray an authoritarian society. He started among the masses, but at a strategic moment he would ascend a podium from where he could talk down to the serried and orderly ranks.


No matter how skilled a person might be, however, a leader’s effectiveness does not lie entirely in his or her own hands. As we have seen, leaders are highly dependent on followers. Do followers see their leader as one of them? Do followers find their leader’s visions of identity compelling? Do followers learn the intended lessons from rituals and ceremonies? Our new psychological analysis tells us that for leadership to function well, leaders and followers must be bound by a shared identity and by the quest to use that identity as a blueprint for action.


The division of responsibility in this quest can vary. In more authoritarian cases, leaders can claim sole jurisdiction over identity and punish anyone who dissents. In more democratic cases, leaders can engage the population in a dialogue over their shared identity and goals. Either way, the development of a shared social identity is the basis of influential and creative leadership. If you control the definition of identity, you can change the world.

Kemo D. (a.k.a. no.7) 


Tags: history, psychology
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