December 5, 2011

The Psychology of Leadership: Part II

Mary MahoneyBY Mary Mahoney

J. Robinson Group Blog

“Before Adolf Hitler’s reign, people yearned for strong leadership. After Hitler, they dreaded it.”

Modern social psychologists are challenging the long-established conventional wisdom that charisma, intelligence and other personality traits are the key to effective leadership.

The concept of “charismatic leadership” is attributed to Karl “Max” Weber, a German sociologist and political economist who introduced it 100 years ago. His advocacy of “strong leaders as saviors” alternatively has been embraced during chaotic times and rejected in revulsion to the horrors imposed by dictators.

Social psychologists Stephen Reicher, S. Alexander Haslam and Michael Platow explore this dichotomy in their paper, The New Psychology of Leadership, published by Scientific American Mind magazine in 2007.  “Before Adolf Hitler’s reign, people yearned for strong leadership,” they observed.  “After Hitler, they dreaded it.”

They point to a new “psychology of leadership” that is based on the premise that leaders are most effective when they can induce followers to see the group’s interest as their own interest.  According to this theory, “no fixed set of personality traits can assure good leadership because the most desirable traits depend on the nature of the group being led.”

Fred Fiedler is credited with formalizing this approach, which he termed the contingency modeling theory of leadership in 1967 when he was a business and management psychologist at the University of Washington in Seattle.  According to this school of thought, there is no “best way” to lead or make decisions. Instead, the optimal course of action depends upon the internal and external situation.

Fiedler says leaders gain influence by maintaining good relationships with group members who like, respect and trust them. How this plays out depends on the circumstances and people involved and may require leaders to act unilaterally when faced with chaos and collaboratively when dealing with friendly peers.

While true contingency modeling involves complex analysis, some best-selling authors and executive search firms have simplified the theory to mean, “For every leadership challenge, there is a perfect candidate.”  Reicher, Haslam and Platow warn this interpretation delivers “mixed results” and supports charismatic models of leadership.

As an example, they point to the work of  James MacGregor Burns, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and political scientist who wrote Transforming Leadership and Leadership.  His work on “transformational leadership” in the 1970s “rekindled the view that only a figure with a specific and rare set of attributes is able to bring about necessary transformations in the structure of organizations and society,” they said.

As an alternative, Reicher, Haslam and Platow advocate this theory of leadership: “Strong leadership arises out of a symbiotic relationship between leaders and followers within a given social group and hence requires an intimate understanding of group psychology.”

The foundation of this theory is the concept of “social identity,” defined by British social psychologists Henri Tajfel and John Turner in the 1970s as “the part of a person’s sense of self that is defined by a group.”  In other words, groups give us a sense of social identity, a sense of belonging to the social world.

“When a shared identity exists, individuals who can best represent that identity will have the most influence over the group’s members and be the most effective leaders,” Reicher, Haslam and Platow said.  “The best leaders … not only seem to belong to (the group) but also exemplify what makes the group distinct from and superior to rival groups.”

Conversely, leaders who set themselves apart from the followers compromise their own effectiveness.  For example, Peter Drucker, “the man who invented management,” railed against the corrosive effects of excessive executive compensation.

“Very high salaries at the top … disrupt the team,” he said.  “They make people in the company see their own top management as adversaries rather than as colleagues.  And that quenches any willingness to say ‘we’ and to exert oneself except in one’s own immediate self-interest.”

Among other necessary attributes for leadership, Reicher, Haslam and Platow observed that “followers generally respect fairness in leaders, although what fairness means can depend on the followers.”  Conversely, even the appearance of favoritism can lead to “civil war in organizations, political parties and countries.”

Reicher, Haslam and Platow round out their “psychological of leadership” theory by stressing the need for leaders to “shape and define” their group’s norms, not just conform to existing norms:

“The most effective leaders define the group’s social identity to fit with the policies they plan to promote, enabling them to position those policies as expressions of what their constituents already believe.”

For example, Garry Wills in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Lincoln at Gettysburg, describes how President Abraham Lincoln “elevated the concept of human equality to a position of supreme importance and made it the touchstone of American identity,” they said. “The reshaping of American identity as centered on equality allowed Lincoln to unite and mobilize Americans around freeing the slaves – a previously divisive issue.”

The take away for business and other leaders?

First: “Leaders and followers must be bound by a shared identity and by the quest to use that identity as a blueprint for action.”

Second: “The development of a shared social identity is the basis of influential and creative leadership.  If you can control the definition of identity, you can change the world.”

In my next post, I will begin a series on the importance of execution.

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