How to Be A Leader: 13 Laws From Social-Psychology

the laws of leadership

There are many guides on how to be a leader.

But most of the ones you see online are not based on science and research.

This one is.

By the end of this post, you will know how to base your leadership on solid social-psychological principles.

#1. Apprentice Yourself: Learn Culture & Power Structures

man smoking a pipe

You’ve seen it in the movies:

The upstart comes up from nowhere, delivers a breathtaking and charismatic speech, or somehow shows everyone the way.
And everyone follows him.

And albeit that’s certainly possible, the reality in 99% of cases is much different.

Let’s analyze that reality, then:

1.2. Early Dominance Often Fails to Turn Into Leadership

Those who try to “take the group by storm” rarely become leaders.

Why not?

Because the rule of thumb is this: strong leadership candidates rest on the group’s support.

When overly dominant individuals try to exert their will, they fail to bond with the other members and to win their acceptance.

And while an already established leader can keep leading with an iron fist, it’s much more difficult for an aspiring leader to impose his leadership by starting with an iron fist.

1.3. Learn The Ropes: The Leadership Apprenticeship

What do the future leaders do, instead?

They start by being followers.
But not submissive, “hide in the corner” type of followers, of course.
They are active followers.

They take part in discussions, contribute, bond and connect with members, and of course, they take over responsibilities and add value to the group.
In short: future leaders start by being great group members (Greenleaf correctly calls this “servant leadership”).

But that’s what many do.
Including many who don’t become -or don’t want to become- future leaders.

What differentiates future leaders is that they learn and take notes.

It’s during this period that they develop the foundations of their future leadership (Greene calls it “apprenticeship” in “Mastery“).

What do future leaders learn?

They learn as much as they can about:

  • Group history
  • Culture and identity
  • Informal webs of power 
  • The most/least respected members
  • Members’ personalities and histories
  • Potential and aspiring future leaders (& threats)
  • Current leaders:
    • What do people say about them?
    • How do current leaders act?
    • How can they use that info to position themselves?

If the current leader falters and the aspiring leader has enough status and support, he might go for a putsch.
But first of all, he seeks to be consonant with and similar to the group. And he seeks to be liked by the current leadership.

The successful future leader accepts and internalizes the groups norms, values, and aspirations.
He positions himself as someone who can help the group and its members move forward.


The BBC Prison Study presents a great case study.

The study allowed for intensive observation while the group strived to form leadership.

The man who came to represent the prisoners started off by participating in group discussions without taking them over.
He observed, asked, and studied. 
He probed the outgroup (the guards) and their power structures. And he tested them, too.

And when it came time to decide who was going to speak for the group, it was he who led the group—not the most dominant man in the group-.

Reversal of The Law: Failure of Apprenticeship

The reversals of the law are:

  • Trying to lead without knowing the group
  • Losing support for lack of group’s representativeness

Here is John Redwood, a spectacular example of the latter:

Lack of knowledge of the national anthem communicated that Redwood was not a true member of the group.
And not being a member of the group undermines your ability to lead.

John Redwood’s career went tumbling because he subtly communicated that he wasn’t representative of the group he was leading. He wasn’t “one of us”.

#2. Embody The Group’s Values & Identity

The most effective leaders embody the group.

They keep some elements of the group’s identity even when they decide to change and modernize.

That’s why it’s crucial that you only decide to join, remain, and later lead, groups that match your personality.
Joining groups you don’t like is a waste of valuable time in your life.

Haslam, in “The New Psychology of Leadership” describes the leader’s representativeness of the group as “prototypicality”.

Being prototypical allows leaders to:

  • Receive more support
  • Drive change more easily
  • Be excused more readily for mistakes (and even when behaving unfairly, Platow, 2001)
  • Lead without pushback.

This last point is crucial. 

Power is perceived much differently, whether it comes from “within the group” or from people whom we perceive to be outsiders (Fiske, 2011)

Power and influence from people outside of the group feel oppressive, while power and influence from an ingroup member is more positive and can even be uplifting.

The message for leaders here is clear: trying to seem special as in “different” and “apart” from the group is a huge mistake.
Instead, the most effective leaders represent the group as one of their best members

When the leader partakes of the group’s culture and identity, we refer to “shared identity” (identity shared between leaders and followers).

But Don’t Brag of Your Embodiment 

But never say that you embody the group.

Bragging is always a risky endeavor and requires skills.

Show that you embody the culture, talk about the culture that joins you together, tell people how great you as a group are and why… But don’t say that you are the perfect representative.

#3. Err On The Authoritarian Side When Starting Off

First impressions are critical. 

And they set the expectations and the baseline for future behavior.

If you start too democratic and affiliated (see Goleman, 2013), people will expect all decisions to be democratic and up to discussion.

And don’t get me wrong: democratic leadership is great, especially with highly competent groups.
But if that’s all you can do, it can become a problem the moment you might need to shift to a more forceful style because the group will feel like you “are becoming too overpowering.”

It’s much better to do the opposite instead: start slightly more authoritarian. 
Then, when you move towards a more democratic style, it will feel like you have been “won over” by the greatness of your team.
And if you need to lay down the law from time to time, it will feel natural.

People always respect strong leaders who choose magnanimity and democracy. 
But they sometimes doubt if democratic and affiliative leaders are lacking in strength.

Note: Handling Insubordination
The autocratic, powerful style is also helpful when dealing with insubordination.
Anything more accommodating reeks of insecurity.
I go over one such example in Power University.

#4. Develop Groups Identities: Turning “I’s” Into “WE’s

basketball sales huddle

We define group identity as:

The way in which a group defines and recognizes itself

This is crucial for leaders because the group’s identity not only determines norms and behaviors but also who it attracts and retains.

As a leader, you must be acutely aware of the group’s identity.
And you must shape it and control it.


Because effective leaders leverage group identities to channel collective action toward the desired goals and behaviors.

We can’t stress enough how important this is, both for the group’s effectiveness and for the leader’s long-term power and control.

It’s crucial because leading through identity and intrinsic motivators is often superior to leading with punishments and rewards (more on that later).

Example: Bush & The Iraq Invasion

Freedom and democracy are two major values of the American group identity.

And guess what Bush stressed, highlighted, expanded, and leveraged to shore up support for his war?
Freedom and democracy, of course.

george bush on a flying suit

The unspoken message was that “if you are a true American and part of this great ingroup, then you also must support the good war against that tyrant”. And that also leveraged the willingness of people to be good, while also stroking Americans’ ego as the leaders of the free world.

4.2. Whenever You Can: Choose Strong Identities

Few people understand group identities.

And that’s too bad because, on average, the stronger the identity, the stronger the commitment.
A strong identity drives cohesiveness, engagement, and performance.

Some ways to increase the group’s identity include:

  • Selection to enter the group
  • High standards
  • High commitment
  • Entrance Fees
  • Special rights for group members
  • Recurring face-to-face meetings

And, unfortunately, external enemies and hazing have also been proven to increase the group’s social identity and cohesion (for hazing, see Cialdini, 1984).

4.3 Lead People to Define Themselves As Team Members: It’s What Turns Individuals Into Team Collaborators

We need to quickly introduce social identities here.

And will define social identities as:

How the members define themselves in relation to the group

When social identities are weak, people don’t feel any sense of belonging to a group.
On the contrary, when social identities are strong people are proud to define themselves as group members.

You want the latter.
At the very least, you need your team members to feel like team members.

The self-categorization theory explains why.

John Turner, the developer of STC, found out that when people define themselves as group members, they also start behaving as a group.

And behaving as a group is the precondition for collaboration and strong team performance.
People who define themselves as group members are more altruistic, contribute more, and care more about the group.

To you as a leader, it means that you must instill a sense of “we” in the group

4.4. Shape & Control that Sense of “We” 

But that’s not enough.

A sense of “we” could be equally supportive, neutral, or even counterproductive for what you are trying to achieve. 
If you let it develop randomly, you are letting chance govern your mission, and great leaders must control the odds, not the other way around.

That is why, as a leader, you must shape and control that “sense of we” in a way that you can leverage it for your goals.

Example: Excellence Mixed With Fun

When I became president of the biggest Toastmasters club in Berlin, our culture wasn’t well defined.

  • Who were we? Nobody knew
  • Why were we even meeting? Just to get better at public speaking? If so, they could have joined any other club. 

I wanted something more. I wanted a band of people who loved meeting and supporting each other.

I defined the “we” as follows:

  1. A highly supportive group of people
  2. who love each other’s company
  3. serious about self-development,
  4. but who don’t take themselves too seriously

In that seeming contradiction, the “we” defined us as fun and freedom lovers, at the same time that we are driven and serious to move forward in life while helping each other with tough-love feedback.

The clarity of our group identity, coupled with the appeal of that identity, helped propel the club to a record number of members with a strong core of members who never missed a meeting.

Also see: how to be a great Toastmasters president.

4.5. Five Steps to Developing Your Culture

There is no one-size-fits-all culture.

Groups can thrive under the most disparate cultures. 

But that’s not helpful to you.
So I will share here the guidelines for what Robert Greene in “The Laws of Human Nature” calls the “reality-based group”.

In Greene’s opinion, that’s the healthiest possible group.
These are the steps to establishing one:

  1. Instill a collective sense of purpose (an ideal, a goal)
    1. Making money should be a consequence of that ideal
    2. The group must feel like it’s creating something important
  2. Assemble the right team of lieutenants
  3. Structure an ego-free environment where people are not afraid of “offending” others
    1. Make the people feel free to communicate ideas
    2. When mistakes happen the group should be free of self-criticizing without feeling embarrassed or fearing blame
  4. Infect the group with productive emotions
    1. Show the way with persistence, confidence, lack of fear, and openness to new ideas
  5. Be aware of group dynamics and remove toxic individuals

For more high-performing business cultures I can highly recommend:

For more on the culture of non-profits see:

#5. Champion & Defend Your Group: It Shores Up Support

We live in a PC world.

And “championing your group” can easily be branded as “racist”, “territorial” or “belligerent”.

But that’s not how people’s minds work.
Nobody will say it out loud, but everyone will secretly resent a leader who doesn’t stand up for his group.

But wait, it gets nastier.

Plenty of studies show that leaders can lose support when they don’t bend the rules to favor their ingroups

And the opposite is true.

Leaders who are perceived as staunch defenders of the ingroup can count on some of the most loyal supporters.
And they are allowed more leadership latitude because people will always see them as “the leader who has our back and whom we can count on”.

Says Haslam:

Leaders’ capacity to exert influence—the very essence of leadership—rests on their behavior being seen to have “done it for us.”

That being said, highly prototypical leaders who show in deeds and actions they are in it for the group -as opposed to themselves- can allow themselves to be fair even with the outgroup.
One more reason for leaders to be fair and prosocial!

Example: Ariel Sharon Pulling out of Gaza

Pulling out Gaza in Israel was seen as an outgroup-friendly move and as a potentially ingroup-betraying move.

But Ariel Sharon could do it without much political blowback.


Because Sharon was seen as a conservative hawk, a war hero, and a staunch defender of the Israeli ingroup. 

It was because Sharon had a history of championing his ingroup that he could allow himself so much latitude.

Machiavellian Advice: Romance Your Spirit of Sacrifice

This is something that manipulative politicians often do.

They pick a fake enemy and play tough, or they romanticize their battles and sacrifices for the group. 

Manipulative bosses tell employees how hard they fought against budget cuts, or what a big tussle it was to defend the “casual Friday policy” (it takes so little to make some people happy… ).

This is how Trump won the election: his “America first” policy was nothing but a promise of ingroup favoritism.

Sadly, Trump supercharges his ingroup favoritism by building up enemies. That’s a toxic leadership style.

You can read more on leaders’ psychological manipulations here:

#6. Leverage Intrinsic Motivation (But Control Sticks & Carrots, Too)

Poor leaders focus solely on sticks and carrots.

After all, that’s what traditional approaches to power have long focused on. 
The old paradigm, simplified, is this: those with power are those who control the resources (carrots) and/or have the power to inflict punishment (sticks).

And those who are powerless are the individuals who are dependent on the resources and/or who can’t escape the punishment.

And don’t get me wrong: carrots and sticks are also important and they do work (in certain environments and with certain individuals).
But they’re inefficient.

Why Carrots & Sticks Is Inefficient

In many environments particularly with high-performing teams, carrots and sticks drain the leader’s goodwill.

Why is it ineffective?

For a host of reasons, including:

  • People resist leaders who use punishments and rewards (called “reactance” in psychology)
  • People will not buy into a goal or vision
  • People will not be persuaded it’s the right thing to do

In brief, as the classical research of Lippitt & White shows, incentives might lead to compliance, but not to conversion.

Machiavelli said it a long time ago after all: mercenaries make for bad armies.
And the same is true for businesses and volunteer organizations, not just armies.

Relying on carrots and sticks is costly for leaders because: one, they need to keep monitoring their followers to ensure compliance. And second, they need to expand resources and effort to impose their will.

That’s why the carrots and sticks of extrinsic motivation are self-depleting while the intrinsic motivators of social identity and personal motivation are self-replenishing. 

See the diagram: 

leadership with intrinsic motivation and social identity

In short: based on plenty of research, relying on punishment and rewards only is the hallmark of leadership’s failure.

Also read:

6.2… But Be Sure to Control Rewards & Punishment

But let’s not be naive.

Extrinsic motivators can, in some cases, “crowd out” extrinsic ones when someone is going to do something anyway.
But in most other situations, the two are not antithetical.

So make sure you also got the “harder” form of power both on the reward side -bonuses, promotions, etc.- and on the punishment side firing, removals, fines, etc-.

As a matter of fact, it’s much better to have both.

Here is a good maxim to keep in mind:

Your friendly handshake on the table is always most appreciated when there is a revolver in the drawer.
-The Power Moves

6.3. Don’t Forget “WIIFM”, But Move Beyond It

WIIFM is similar.

What’s In It For Me” is crucial in many social relationships, and especially so in first encounters among strangers.

But whenever you can avoid appealing only to “WIIFM”.
WIIFM is a model of transactional social exchange, and it’s cold and impersonal.

As a group leader, you are not leading based on one-off exchanges or impersonal transactions.
Quite the opposite.

Research shows indeed that in politics and in non-profits appeals to identity trump the social exchange model (Tyler & Blader, 2001).

But that is also true for the very best for-profit businesses. 

Organ and colleagues, for example, show that employees’ willingness to “go the extra mile” hinges on them not asking “what’s in it for me”.

And Sinek explains in “Start With WHY” that people dream of working at Apple because Apple speaks to their identity and it helps them define “who they are”.

#7. Don’t Shy Away From Occasional Anger

Machiavelli once said:

It’s better to be feared than to be loved.

But here is the best part: fear and love are not wholly antithetical.

And rare outbursts of anger or dominance in an otherwise calm and caring personality can help achieve that goal.

The opposite can be dangerous: a constantly calm and detached leader is suspicious.

Does he even have what it takes to raise his voice?
This is what the type-As, drivers, and more alpha-male personalities will be wondering.

And can he be passionate like a human being or is he some kind of emotionally impaired psychopath?
This is what the more empathetic team members will be wondering.

Put those questions to rest with well-calibrated outbursts.

See Michael Corleone, mostly calm.
But also going wild every once in a while:

If raising your voice is not your style, you can achieve the same effect with:

  • Strong feedback
  • Expressing your disappointment
  • Telling them you expect better from them

Express your disappointment first, which will break rapport.
Then, once they fix their mistake, you are even warmer than before, as if to say “now (that you complied) we are great friends again”.

That’s emotionally addictive in a powerful and positive way.

Once you re-embrace them, they will know that good work and proper behavior get your emotional reward.

#8. Provide Emotional Stability: The Rock During The Storm

Have you heard of “Brene Brown?”

For sure you have, her concept of “vulnerability” is all over the place these days.

But now let’s drop the sentimentality of “how great it would be if anyone could be vulnerable himself” and let’s step into the real world, where it works like this: a leader cannot be too vulnerable.
Or at least, not a leader who wants to be highly respected.

A highly vulnerable leader who’s an open book for everyone becomes “our (slightly) emotionally incontinent” and (slightly) broken pal”. 
Not the perfect identity for a leader, is it?

Sure, it would be nice to share all your fears and hang-ups, sometimes. And for that, you have your friends or your therapist.
Just don’t make your followers your pals: they need you in a different role.

That “overly vulnerable” image is particularly damaging when resolute leadership is needed: during emotional times, during crises, and, well… When everyone is looking around for a leader.
When the hard times come, the leader who cultivated himself to be in control of his emotional self is much better placed to steady everyone’s nerves and provide the level-headed guidance everyone needs.

Don’t worry: you don’t need to be a cold robot.
Sometimes you can even open up and share about your life, or show a glimmer of your emotional self. When you do it from a position of overall strength, then it will feel like you are truly trusting your reports.
And it will feel special.

Also read:

Everyone loves a vulnerable leader. In Words.
But in deeds, they will follow and respect strength & resolve. 
-The Power Moves

#9. Structure Group Hierarchies Based On Contribution

Hierarchies are natural within any group (Peterson, 2018).

Leaders who follow our current zeitgeist and pretend hierarchies don’t exist will only look daft, weak, and… A bit simple-minded, too.

What should you base your hierarchies on?

Hierarchies must be based on tangible benefits people bring to the group, including:

  • Knowledge
  • Effort
  • Connections
  • Resources
  • Results

Acknowledging and respecting unspoken merit-based hierarchies shows that the leader rewards contribution. 
And it motivates people to find ways to add value to the group.

Respecting merit-based hierarchies sends the message that meritocracy reigns supreme.

9.2.: The Ultimate Team: Competitive Altruists

Yes, there exists such a thing as “competitive altruism”.

Barclay (Barclay, 2006) proved it empirically.
Competitive altruism refers to team players who “show off” their altruism to climb the social hierarchy.

That’s the ultimate “culture of cooperation”: if you can set up a culture where advancement and status are granted based on contribution, then you have just reached the “ultimate team-spirit”.

9.3. But Don’t Tell People Who’s Lower

One manager once said to my colleague:

Bad Boss: Lucio is more senior than you are

And with that, he created a rift in the team.

My colleague hated him and I didn’t feel close to him because he didn’t tell me. 
But because my colleague told me about it, we felt closer together.
Closer together against our boss.

Don’t make the same mistake and never tell anyone they’re “lower” than someone else.
Most people know it anyway, and reminding them is divisive and promotes internal infighting.

What you do instead is simply reward those who contribute more and praise them more.
Which, in turn, will serve as an encouragement for everyone to do the same great job.

And that’s the hallmark of soft power and influence: having people work for your approval and rewards (and for the group’s benefit).

#10. Make The Group Look Up to You: Lead by Example

enlightened leader

We discussed “embodying the group”.

And we called it “prototypicality”.
It’s important to note here that “prototypical” is NOT synonymous with “typical” or “average”.

Quite the opposite.

You want to represent the group, but as a leader, you want to represent the group as one of its very best members.
Ideally, you want to represent the group as the very best member.

Standing out because of your personality and/or performance will make your leadership all the more influential.

On the other hand, being an average member will make it much harder to lead the most driven individuals. 
Especially the most hierarchical-minded ones will be thinking “who the hell is this guy to lead me”.

Some crucial areas to excel at:

  • Work Ethics: work hard, harder than anyone else
  • Work quality: deliver great work
  • Preparation: always be well prepared, sloppy leaders lead sloppy teams
  • Knowledge: study and research your field
  • Learnability: own up to your mistakes, show you appreciate “learning” more than “being right” (see: how to develop a growth mindset)

And avoid:

  • Any social climbing behavior (see example here)
  • Abuses of power, including:
    • Personal vendettas
    • Sleeping with reports
    • Demanding and expecting exceptions

And, finally: keep your ego in check.
Both real-world analysis and research show that leadership grounded in shared identity beats ego-driven leadership.

It’s good talking about how great you are, but always make it about “we, the group”.

#11. Be Fair: Perceived Fairness Enables Group’s Cooperation

justice monument

So obvious, yet so underappreciated.

Unfair leaders break their teams into individuals.

Keep that in mind:

Unfair leaders break their teams into individuals.

When people perceive leaders to be unfair or corrupt, they revert from prosocial to selfish and cynical. 
And what could have been a win-win team for every single individual devolves into a big tragedy of commons.

On the other hand, principled leaders set the example to turn selfish individuals into a collaborative team.

That’s one of the reasons why trustworthy, honest politicians run well-functioning, wealthy countries.

Social research has proven this law of leadership.
For example, Tyler and Degoey found out that people weren’t willing to restrain their consumption of water depending on how severe the shortage was, but based on how much they trusted the politicians.

Think about it again: people’s prosocial behavior didn’t depend on the severity of the threat but on the (perceived) fairness of the leader.

That’s why it’s so crucial that leaders be fair and prosocial. Axelrod (Axelrod, 1984) says that one of the ways to foster cooperation is to cultivate the personal reputation of a reciprocator (also see “enlightened reciprocation“).
That means that if you want team-players show that you’re a team-player.

In social psychology, this is called the “group engagement model” (Tyler & Blader, 2003) and it’s been confirmed by experiments of game theory as well (also see “Ridley, 1996“).

group engagement model for effective leadership
After Tyler & Blader, Adapted from Haslam

In simple words: be fair, be the first to sacrifice for the group, and be the example of the behavior you want to see.

Exemplary leaders show individuals that “we” is stronger than a collection of “Is”

#12. Remove Anti-Social Individuals (Or They’ll Spoil The Bunch)

Rotten apples spoil the bunch.

That’s not a maxim, that’s science.

And recognizing and defusing bad players might be the most important and most under-appreciated task of leadership.
A system or a group with a power-unaware leader is liable to be infiltrated and toppled by anti-social players who are going to use the group resources for their own gain only.

This is why we say here that “to be good, you need to be bad”: you need to be power-aware to spot and deal with the takers of life.
As a leader, that’s something you have to do for the team and the mission as well.

Let’s quickly review the science.

Experiments in public good environments show that most people are “conditional cooperators”.

That means they cooperate as long as the majority cooperates. 
But when they see selfish individuals (free-riders) who take from the group more than they give, then they stop giving, too.
When that happens, the majority of the group stops adding value and you devolve back from a team to a collection of (selfish) individuals.

This is crucial, so let’s make this simple: selfish individuals spread selfishness like a virus within the group.

The good news of getting rid of selfish players enhances the team.
Remember when we talked about “competitive altruists”? Well, one of the tools of altruistic competition is the punishment of free riders.
People who punish free-riders are seen as more trustworthy (picture below) while they also help the team coalesce around prosocial values.
Again, win-win.

effects of punishing freeriders on personal status
Source: Evolutionary Psychology, David Buss, 2018

Luckily, experiments show that the opposite is also true.
And as much as negative behavior starts vicious circles of cheating, taking, and selfishness, positive behavior of mutual support, altruism, and value-giving cascades into more of the same.

So you know your job as a leader now: remove bad apples, discourage value-taking, and encourage, promote, and be an example of value-giving.

12.2. Nip It In The Bud: Dispatch Snakes Before They Grow Teeth

Same goes for your enemies.

Keeping enemies within the group is dangerous not only for yourself but for the team atmosphere as well.

Enemies who know what they’re doing will be scheming against you and forming a coalition of haters.

As legendary Chicago Bulls coach Phil Jackson said:

The secret of managing is to keep the guys who hate you away from the guys who are undecided

When these internal enemies are left free to operate, the team will split into two sub-teams: the loyalists, and the rebellious faction.
The first victim, of course, is the team’s morale, atmosphere, and effectiveness.


Whenever you suspect an enemy, cut him loose.
It’s good for you, but it’s also good for the team. Win-win.

Also see:

12.3. Lead The Way With Empathy! Leaders With Empathic Connection Are Good Leaders

This might be the right time to talk about John Mayer’s research.

Mayers focuses on emotional intelligence and empathy.

And, in short:

Good leaders are empathic leaders. 
They care about their people.

Leaders who lack an emotional bond with their followers are dangerous leaders.

Cold and cynical leaders are more likely to use their power position to further their own ends rather than the group’s ends.

Great leaders care.

#13. Steer the Ship: Stay The Course, Prevent Toxic Drifts

orchestra conductor leader

Group leadership is like being an orchestra conductor:

It’s always in motion, and you must make sure the environment remains positively productive.

As we have seen, there is no one-fits-all culture.

However, toxic group dynamics are similar in every group, engulfing the most disparate teams in very similar ways.

Typical toxic dynamics include:

  • Back-stabbing
  • Exaggerated social climbing (undermining, throwing under a bus, etc., etc.)
  • Internal factions (tribalism)
  • Politics above results
  • Big egos and/or fragile egos
  • Status as final goal (instead of results)

If you find yourself trying to fix toxic group dynamics avoid the natural temptation of making it about the people.

Individuals are swept away under toxic group dynamics, and even good people turn toxic.
Instead, it’s about the overarching dynamic.

You are not fighting against anyone, you are fighting for the group.

13.2. Prepare Your Succession Plan

John Maxwell said:

Time is the ultimate test of leadership

And by “time” he means “what happens after you are gone”.

Indeed, some of the worst infighting happens right after a great leader abdicates and some of the best empires faltered because of poor succession.

Don’t make the same mistake: ensuring that your work remains after you are gone must be your final crowning. 

Leader’s Succession: From Within or From Outside?

From a social-psychological point of view, there is a huge difference between big corporations and smaller groups (less than 150 members).

With big corporations, there is no definitive answer on whether an external or internal CEO will perform better.

But as a rule of thumb, looking for an external leader can be a good choice if the business is struggling and/or needs big changes.

But if things are good and if you have done your job well, hiring from within will help strengthen your group.
From a social-psychological point of view, internal succession shows that members are valued and it tells the team that “one of us” is leading us. 

When it comes to a shared identity, a successor who is too different from the leader can lead to cultural drifts and potential disagreement about the organization’s identity (Balser, 2009).
If your group is doing well avoid that risk and choose leaders who are similar to yourself and to the culture.

How about appointing successors?
Should you know who is going to replace you beforehand?

One study into family-owned businesses shows that a formal succession plan did not correlate with work relationships.
However, having no idea about potential successors might lead to internal struggles.
Whole empires have faltered when an enlightened leader suddenly died with no obvious heir. Avoid that mistake: it’s usually best to have at least a few candidates at the ready.

In brief: if all is well, choose your successor from within, based on merit and based on the value he has added to the group.
To ensure continuity, pick a prototypical leader who represents the culture well.


  1. Study the group: become fully acculturated as an active follower (apprenticeship)
  2. Align yourself with the culture and remain aligned as a leader (shared identity)
  3. Develop group identities: most groups have weak identities, strengthen yours
  4. Start off your leadership with a more forceful style and mellow down later: starting too democratic can pose future challenges
  5. Champion and defend your group: it will strengthen your leadership
  6. Control rewards & punishment, but lead through group identity and intrinsic motivators
  7. Do get angry or harsh when it’s needed, but do it from a position of caring: results require tough love
  8. Keep your fears and vulnerabilities for yourself: People follow and respect strong leaders more than vulnerable ones (that’s the “burden of leadership”)
  9. Acknowledge and respect hierarchies: everyone is a beloved member, but those who give more also get some more
  10. Lead by example: always the best way to instruct and shape culture
  11. Be fair: but watch out when being fair with an outgroup
  12. Be quick in removing enemies and anti-social individuals: rotten apples spoil the bunch
  13. Steer the ship: once you established your leadership within a strong culture, your job is to keep it that way

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