Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Why Leaders Must Be Like Their Followers

Leadership is not possible without followship. Research by Stephen Reicher and his associates demonstrates that strong leadership flows from a symbiotic relationship between leaders and followers. (1) This new psychology of leadership suggests that the most effective leaders understand and monitor the values and the opinions of their followers, thereby enabling a productive dialogue about where the group currently is and what actions to take to reach a given destination.

The term "social identity" was coined in the 1970's to refer to the part of a person's sense of self that is defined by a group. Social identity allows people to feel connected to other group members, such as Lakers fans, Catholics, Americans, strong organizational cultures, or a sales team. This social identity helps the group reach consensus on what is important to the group and how to coordinate actions consistent with shared goals. Leaders are more effective when they can help followers see themselves as members of a particular group, as well as see the group's interests as their own interests.

This is what President Bush did after 9/11 when he promised to "hunt down" and "find those folks who committed this act." Bush portrayed himself as an everyday American who was able to speak for America. He has continued to use this folksy, Texas communication style to come across as one of us rather than a member of the elite East Coast Yale University club. Bush new that we not only like people who are like us, we only like to follow leaders who are like us.

Professor Reicher points out that the best leaders are symbolic representations of the group they seek to lead. They not only belong to the group, they exemplify what makes the group different from and superior to other groups. This is what was behind Bush's leather jackets/cowboy clothes and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s headscarf. Barack Obama’s victory stems partly from his ability to "sell" his story as a quintessential, rag to riches American story.

The need to identify with a leader was demonstrated when researchers asked business students to choose the ideal characteristics for a leader. When students were told that a rival group had a very intelligent leader, the students wanted their leader to be unintelligent. However, when the other group's leader was unintelligent, nobody wanted an unintelligent leader.

The lesson for leaders is clear, understand the norms, values and beliefs of those whom you wish to lead, and then access these norms, values and beliefs to lead them to your destination. When Abraham Lincoln emphasized equality in the Gettysburg Address, he rallied people around this ideal to emancipate the slaves and save the union. How should you be creating and accessing social identity to rally your troops?

Keep on eXpanding,


1. Stephen Reicher et al: The New Psychology of Leadership, ‘Scientific American Mind,’ August/September 2007, 22 - 29.

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