Minds on management

21st October 2011 at 01:00

The New Psychology of Leadership

S Alexander Haslam, Stephen D Reicher and Michael J Platow

Taylor and Francis, RRP pound;18.95

5 OUT OF 5

Given the primacy attributed to leadership as the key lever for improvement in Scottish education, a book with an illuminating perspective on leadership is welcome. Here leadership is rooted in social identity, what turns a collection of individuals into a group and gives the group a sense of direction and purpose.

The process whereby we categorise ourselves as group members produces thinking about we and not just I. Social identity binds leaders and followers together as part of the same group. Leaders are only leaders to the extent that followers recognise them as leaders.

This book debunks the myth of a specific set of stereotypical leadership qualities. Leaders have to look like "one of us" rather than look like the typical leader and exemplify what makes "us" different from our out- groups. Leadership is never about `I', it is a "we" thing.

Successful leaders start off by becoming a supportive group member. Poor leaders rush in and treat people in terms of alien identities, working against the grain of group identity rather than with it.

We want our leaders to be exceptional but at the same time to be just like us. This paradox is resolved by people who are exceptional in being just like the group. Leaders are not like the rest of us as individuals but they bear a striking resemblance to the group identity.

Leaders must be seen to "do it for us", rather than be "in it for themselves" or even worse for another group. Unfair leadership drives a sword between leader and followers by creating different groups. Leaders need to be "entrepreneurs" of identity, reflecting back to the group who they are and representing their own ideas as the embodiment of who we are and want to be.

Leaders need to fit the group identity, but can also shape the identity to one that fits them. They innovate by challenging group members to live up to their aspired identity, saying "let us do what we believe in" not "do what I believe in". They sell new practice as an expression of core values.

Leadership is about getting followers to want to follow rather than forcing them. Leadership produces rather than depends on power. Giving orders represents a failure of leadership.

Leadership is essentially a process of identity management. This involves reflecting - listening to the group to understand its culture; representing - ensuring their actions embody and advance group values; realising - helping the group achieve success that matters to them.

The democratic leader facilitates an open debate about "who we are". In an autocratic style the leader is master whose version of identity is the only one. A dictatorial leader is the sole embodiment of the group and can only exist among followers who are in despair.

The twin messages are firstly that leadership does not get any easier over time and always needs to be practised and secondly, leadership that is grounded in shared identity will always win out over that which is grounded in ego.

About the authors

S Alexander Haslam is professor of social and organisational psychology at Exeter University; Stephen Reicher is professor of social psychology at St Andrews University; Michael Platow is associate professor of social psychology at the Australian National University.

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