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Simone's OncOpinion

The Psychology of Leadership

Simone, Joseph V. MD

doi: 10.1097/01.COT.0000472001.09330.3e
Opinion
Free

Because of my abiding interest in what makes good leaders, I collect leadership articles from newspapers, books, and magazines and keep them in a folder. I sift through the articles from time to time looking for a new approach to understanding leadership and discard some after re-reading them because they lack intellectual and practical “punch”—that is, something that can be taught or implemented.

On occasion I simply overlook a useful article for years; that is the case for one such article, but it remains important: “The New Psychology of Leadership” by Stephen D. Reicher, S. Alexander Haslam, and Michael J. Platow, published in the August/September 2007 issue of Scientific American Mind (scientificamerican.com/article/the-new-psychology-of-leadership), a topic that they subsequently wrote about in a more comprehensive way for a book with the same title published three years later.

Reicher and Haslam are professors in the U.K, and Platow is a reader in psychology in Australia.

The authors briefly review the history of writings on leadership and point out that in the past, leadership scholars focused on such qualities as charisma, intelligence, and other hard-wired, inborn qualities. The leader uses the talents to dominate followers and tell them what to do, aiming to inject them with enthusiasm that they lack or enforcing compliance. Success, therefore, is due to built-in traits that will make him/her capable of overcoming any problems ahead. More recent research, the three noted, has pointed to better ways to account for leadership performance.

The basic theme of this different approach is that 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/team members about what the group embodies and stands for and thus how it should act.

Reicher, Haslam, and Platow define leadership as the ability to shape what followers actually want to do, rather than enforcing compliance using rewards and punishments.

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Not Top-Down

The offshoot of this approach is that leadership is not a top-down process; rather, it is dependent on constituent cooperation and support. To gain credibility and support from one's charges, the leader must lead from within the group instead of above it, using everyday language familiar to all of those involved.

Perhaps the first to point to today's common belief in charismatic leadership was Max Weber, the famous political and social theorist, who a century ago offered “charismatic leadership” as an antidote to the his deep concern for the effects of an industrial society. He stated that without such leadership he forecast “not summer's bloom lies ahead of us, but rather a polar night of icy darkness and hardness.”

But Hitler, Stalin, and Mao followed the “charismatic” approach, and look what they brought us: the Second World War, and mass executions by all three, the worst being the Holocaust. As a consequence, after the War, many people turned against the notion that charisma and character were the paramount features of good leaders.

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Figure

Thereafter, a series of reports suggested other ways to judge the suitability of a person to serve as the leader of a working group. According to these newer approaches, no fixed set of personality characteristics could provide good rules for the selection because the characteristics depend a great deal on the nature of the group being led.

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‘Contingency Models’

Scholars began to favor “contingency models,” focusing on the context in which leaders operate. The social psychologist Fred Fiedler of the University of Washington suggested that the secret of good leadership lies in discovering the “perfect match” between the individual and the leadership challenge he or she confronts. This became a popular approach in the 1960s and 1970s.

Fiedler believed there was a perfect candidate for every leadership job. The results, however, were mixed at best. You and I can wonder how one recognizes the “perfect fit.” Also, this basically returns to the option of finding a charismatic leader—In effect, a mishmash of approaches failed to offer a suitable method of choosing an appropriate leader.

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‘Social Identify’

Another approach surfaced during the 1970s from psychological studies by Henri Taifel and John C. Turner at the University of Bristol in England. They coined the term “social identity” to refer to a person's sense of self that is defined by a group. This also allows people to identify and act together as group member—e.g., Cubs fans, medical professionals, members of a professional association, or a group that likes working for the Ford Motor Company. These social identities enable us to reach consensus on what matters to us, to coordinate our actions with others, and strive for shared goals.

This all sounds fine and good, but there is a problem: What if you cannot find someone so tuned into the group. Would you be forced to hire someone from the inside of the institution or to hire someone from the followers to be the leader? That may work, but seriously narrows the pool. To make this work one must have a large pool to choose from.

Reicher, Haslam, and Platow provide a solution: Leaders who adopt this strategy must try not only to fit in with their group, but also shape the group's identity in a way that makes the leader's own agenda and policies appear to be (and are) an expression of that identity. This can be hard work and will normally take months to meld the agendas and policies.

Especially if someone is new to the organization, this could take up much of the first year. It helps if one could interview the team members individually before taking the job. Nonetheless, the effort will pay off in the long run.

Having used this approach myself at several leadership jobs—of course, at the time not knowing that there was some research behind it—I can say that this is not as hard as it seems. Becoming “one of the guys” came naturally to me, so being naturally gregarious gave me a step up.

Still, this is not to underestimate the effort: One must invest a lot of time and thought in gaining trust and shaping the team into a focused, high-quality, fun-to-be-a-part-of organization.

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