As business psychologists we spend a great deal of time trying to identify leadership. And to help us there’s a mighty army of personality and leadership questionnaires, as well as numerous books that claim to pinpoint the ‘habits’ that distinguish successful leaders from the rest. In contrast there is little on the way in which leadership can grow from a leader’s role as part of a group.
Less I-ness, more we-ness
The group perspective on leadership, or the ‘social identity’ approach to organisational psychology, works on the premise that our sense of self isn’t fixed. It exists on a continuum that runs from self-interested personal identity (‘I-ness’) to group orientated social identity (‘we-ness’); with our position being determined by social context. What is more we tend to act on an individualistic basis when we compare ourselves to an ‘in-group’, such as one composed of our work colleagues; whereas when the comparison is with an ‘out-group’, such as a competitor, we are far more likely to act in a group-orientated manner.
Who are we?
It follows that if social rather than personal identity is better at explaining what we do in groups, then measures of the latter, such as personality questionnaires, are not going to be good predictors of behaviour.
In terms of leadership it also seems likely that a concentration on the individual isn’t the answer. If leadership is about group behaviour then it’s really about creating a shared identity that binds the group together. Thus true leadership is about helping to create, shape and sustain a sense of ‘who and what we are’.
What happened to my charisma?
Those that are masters at creating shared identity are also likely to be described as charismatic. However if charisma is dependent on the management of group identity, then if you lose your ability to shape this identity your charisma will evaporate – an effect that can be readily observed in the world of politics!
Overall then, perhaps there’s one expression that sums up social identity and leadership: great leaders are the entrepreneurs of identity. And what they do is to help us create our perception of who we are.
Note: The expression ‘entrepreneurs of identity’ is probably best attributed to Alex Haslam and Steve Reicher. If you’re interested in this area you might also like to read Alex Haslam’s book, Psychology in Organizations: The Social Identity Approach, published by Sage.
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