The New Psychology of Leadership (2006) is an evidence-based investigation of the psychology and social dynamics of leadership.
It combines theory with laboratory-based evidence and real-world analysis to craft a holistic overview of how to be an effective leader.
- Our culture of leaders’ idealization and idolization gets it (mostly) wrong about what leadership really is
- Leadership is a process of social dynamics between leaders and followers
- Effective leaders gain status and influence by representing the “we-ness” of the group
- The whole group is more effective when bound by a common “we”
- The “we-ness” of the group both empowers and constrains the leaders’ agency
- Great leaders can work on changing, expanding, or focusing on what that “we” means as they gain the group’s trust (entrepreneurs of identity)
About The Author: Alexander Haslam is a professor of psychology at the University of Queensland.
He has also written several more books on social psychology and social identity theory.
#1. Leadership is Social, Not Individualistic
The authors mention John Maxwell as an example of literature—and a culture—that has long looked at leaders as separate entities from those whom they lead.
The issue of looking at leaders alone leaves out two important questions:
- The followers have largely been left out of leadership’s literature
- The interaction between leaders and followers
The authors make the point that the followers are part of leadership dynamics as much as the leaders.
For leaders to be effective, they must align their goals with the identity of “us,” which is the group.
#2. The Myth of “The Great Man”
Focusing on the inherent characteristics of leaders led researchers to look into what those “personality traits” of great leaders exactly were.
A lot of research has been done to find out what exactly these “great man” traits are.
But the results have been disappointing.
Even in the case of the best predictor of leadership’s strength, which was intelligence, it only predicted a mere 5% of the variance.
The long “psychological treasure hunt” for the secrets to leadership was highly unsuccessful, note the authors.
And it was time to stop focusing on the individual and start looking at the social dynamics instead.
Consequences of “The Great Man Myth”
The authors say that the myth of the great leader has some important consequences that, interestingly, benefit the leaders but not the followers.
If you believe in the great man theory, then:
- Most people are denied leadership positions because they haven’t shown “leadership traits.”
- Leaders must remain leaders because they possess the right mix of qualities
Personal qualities still matter, but they need to be put in context. Write the authors:
It is not about asserting the superiority of “I” to “we,” but about demonstrating the superiority of “I” as an embodiment of “we.”
And to put the “great leader myth” in context, we need a new psychology of leadership.
#3. The Focus of The New Psychology of Leadership
The new psychology of leadership must be based on these criteria:
- Move beyond the contemplation of the “great man” to a more holistic view which includes followers and other groups
- Must be context-sensitive: there are no “all-season” leaders and the capacity to lead depends on people and context
- Must be perspective-sensitive: if the group is large enough (i.e., a country leader), the leader will not appeal to everyone equally
- The new psychology of leadership does not deny leaders’ qualities: it simply puts them in perspective within a more holistic approach
- It must have empirical validity. And it’s exactly the empirical failure of past models that requires a new psychology of leadership
#4. The Current Academic Threads of Leadership Psychology
The “great man” theory of leadership is still popular to this day among the general public, but not among academic researchers.
The current threads of analysis are:
The Situational Approach
Empirically, we do know that personality traits do matter, no matter the situation.
So today, the most popular interpretation is that the environment moderates but does not obliterate character.
The Contingency Approach
This approach stresses the “perfect” match between leaders and followers. when there is a perfect match between the leader and the circumstances and needs of the group.
The authors fully endorse the general concept of contingency, but not the way it’s been applied.
The issue with the contingency approach is that it focuses on the leader and the interaction as separate entities, and only the leader is the focus of psychological analysis.
The Followers’ Centric Approach
There are multiple variations and sub-variations here:
- One focuses on leaders’ dependence on followers’ perceptions of them
- Another focuses on the transaction, with one strand borrowing from economics and exchange theories
- And another focusing on power relations
The economic view centered on costs and benefits is endlessly elastic, and treating leaders and followers as equals does not seem to capture the reality of leadership.
The power approach is more interesting, tracing back to Machiavelli, whose main work “The Prince” focuses on the ability of leaders to reward and punish followers.
The authors say that power and power dynamics matter in leadership. Different leaders use different forms depending on who they are talking to. And the power approach to leadership is an important one.
I quote them:
Clearly, then, power—so often ignored by psychologists—is another key ingredient that is necessary to understand leadership.
Yet, power must be put into a social perspective because it’s not something you have or don’t have.
You have power by virtue of other people.
Transactional theories also tend to be zero-sum games, while leadership can create new sources of value and new reserves of power.
The Measurement Approach
This approach uses questionnaires such as the Multifactor Leadership Questionnaire (MLQ) and, when well done, also submits questionnaires to the leaders’ reports, managers, peers, and external parties (i.e., customers).
The Behavioral Approach
This is what has led to the “great man myth”, but there is also good research.
Two behaviors that emerged as crucial to leadership are consideration for the followers and structuring the organization to organize the work.
Leadership is not just about existing social realities but also about the transformation of social realities.
Putting It All Together
All the different approaches do add value, and they show us that a comprehensive psychology of leadership must take the following into account:
#5. Leadership VS Management
The authors discuss a type of leadership that is not “only” about doing things.
What they focus on, though, is even more important.
It’s the true ideal of leadership that they focus on:
It is about getting them to want to do things. Leadership, then, is about shaping beliefs, desires, and priorities. It is about achieving influence, not securing compliance.
The leadership the authors discuss is different from simple management or authority.
And, the difference between them is that true leadership wins the hearts of people, mobilizing effort that is based on passion and intrinsic motivation (power through).
Leadership based on “brute force”, external incentives, or “raw power” is a failure of leadership (power over).
People are likely to reject leadership that doesn’t come from their own willingness to follow because they see it as an external imposition.
Incentivization and brute force are the signs of leadership’s failure.
#6. The Core of Leadership
These are the four fundamental rules of leadership:
- Be “one of us” (and distinguish the in-group from out-group)
- Do it “for us”
- Craft a “sense of us” (entrepreneurs of identity)
- “Make us matter”
Failing to be one of us can end the careers of otherwise promising leaders. As happened to John Redwood when he was caught on camera trying to mime the Welsh national anthem without knowing it:
A clear demonstration that John Redwood was not “one of us”, so he could not represent the group
“The New Psychology of Leadership” then goes deep into what exactly each step means.
Leaders can be ahead of the group, but never so far ahead that they are out there on their own.
#7. The 3 Core Dimensions of Collective Action
The authors propose a helpful question-and-answer format to summarize the core dimensions of group action:
- Who acts together? Those who feel part of a common social category
The corollary is that the wider the category of those who feel part of a group, the greater the mobilization you can achieve.
this is why politicians seek to use very broad categories: more votes.
- Withing which framework will they act? Within the group’s shared norms and values
The group’s norms and values determine the boundaries of the actions one can take and which types of actions are deemed appropriate.
The more an action is congruent with the group’s values, the more support it will get (and vice versa).
- Who guides them? Leaders who embody the group’s distinctiveness
Leaders who want to leverage social power need to present themselves as the embodiment of the group’s identity.
No leader can represent us when there is no “us” to represent
#8. Rules of Leadership
As the authors analyze leadership by dissecting and presenting both literature and historical events, they present 4 major “rules of leadership”.
To be effective, leaders must be:
- One of us: must be seen as belonging to the group we lead
- In-group champions: their actions must be seen as taken for the group’s best interest
- Entrepreneurs of identity: telling the group who we are us who we are and positioning their ideas as the embodiment of the group’s identity and values. To leverage the group’s support leaders must work hard to ensure their policies are aligned with the group’s identities
- Engineers of identity: also called “embedders of reality”, it refers to transforming plans into reality. Vision only carries us so far and eventually, leaders must show the group they can matter, impact the world, and bring about the changes they seek
Notice that the dynamic between points 1 and 3 is dynamic.
To represent us, leaders must be similar to us. At the same time, the social identity enables and constrains leadership, as leaders can’t act in opposition to the social identity.
But at the same time, leaders also structure and shape the meaning of who we are.
And they can act in a way to re-channel social identities.
Point 4 is also important: Leaders who rev the crowd up and mobilize them towards a certain vision must eventually deliver that vision.
An example of a leader who got the vision right but failed the “reality test” is George W. Bush.
Bush managed to transform the social identity of America into a country that defends itself -and the world- against evil forces.
Bush landed on the carrier wearing a flying suit, looking the part of a real warrior leader.
He declared “mission accomplished,” and his ratings were sky-high.
But as the grim reality started catching up and undermined the lies of the war, he eventually lost much of his credibility as a leader and much of his power to rally the masses.
#9. Social Identities Enable Leadership
“The New Psychology of Leadership” is based on social identity theory.
The main social identity contributions to the author’s new psychology of leadership are:
- Our sense of self can be derived from the group we belong to and the meaning we associate with that belonging
- The social identity will shape the norms and values of the group members
- Intergroup behavior stems from the social norms and values connected to social identity
- When social identities are switched on (“salient”), the group as a whole can count more than the individual’s fate (depersonalization, see Turner)
- The nature of groups and groups’ dynamics are always interconnected with the social contexts
- If social identity is based on a comparison with other groups or people, then our own social identities will shift depending on who we are comparing to
In short, the effect of social identities is that they transform a collection of individuals into a coherent social force.
Intra-group interaction leads people to agree on what’s important and strive to achieve it, all pulling in the same direction.
Say to the authors:
Shared social identity is the basis of collective social power.
Future Social Identities
Social identities don’t have to be present-bound. They can arch back to our past, jolting us into missing our true selves.
Or they can paint a picture of our future. spurring us to achieve it.
Often, they combine the two.
Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream speech” challenges the listeners to embrace what it truly meant to be Americans—equals—and to make it a reality again.
In these cases, social identities are projects for future realities.
And also note that it’s only thanks to a good cultural knowledge of the Gettysburg Address that King could align the Civil Rights Movement with the realization of American values.
#10. Fair to The Ingroup & Unfair to The Outgroup?
Plenty of research shows that judges and referees tend to favor and be more lenient to the ingroups, for example to teams or people who are from the same countries or regions.
Somewhat, ingroup favoritism comes to be expected.
People unconsciously know this and when leaders know they are “suspects” for not being very in-group, they become biased towards the outgroup, possibly in an effort to prove themselves (Van Kleef, Steinel, van Knippenberg, Hogg, & Svensson 2007). Ie.: toughness is a strategy to secure in-group support
However, it would be simplistic to say that leaders should be fair to the ingroup but unfair to the group.
Fairness and unfairness are relative when it comes to leadership.
What matters is being the group’s champion, and being the group champion depends on the group’s identity and values.
So a group that values openness and stands against racism will not support a leader who is unfair to an outgroup of minorities.
Leaders’ Behavior Shapes People’s Behavior toward The Outgroup
What’s even more crucial here is that leaders’ actions and choices can shape the way people think and behave toward outgroups.
Say to the authors:
The ways leaders treat people as similar or as different play a critical part in drawing category boundaries.
If we are fair in our treatment of people, the implication is that we are all “in it together.” If we are unfair, the implication is that we are in different camps.
All of us should take note here.
#11. Group Boundaries & Mobilization
The boundaries of our groups have huge consequences for the dynamics of leadership and social identities.
It’s only when you can draw a boundary that you can institute a culture and a common mobilization.
As the authors write:
Category boundaries contain and constrain those constituencies
When group boundaries mean life or death
In extreme cases, the boundaries will influence who fights who—or if any fight will happen at all-.
The example here is Bulgaria, which decided to consider Jews a “national minority” and “part of Bulgaria’s citizens”.
Compare it instead to the German group lines that stressed nationhood as “ethnic comrades as part of the nationhood.
And that definition painted Jews as outgroups.
When Bulgaria’s’ enlarged citizenship was accepted, it meant that Bulgaria didn’t help the Nazis collect Jews on its territory.
This is exactly the reason why, in my articles, I always caution people against becoming too entrenched in any group.
Also, read “dark-psychology” and “the social-psychology of the red pill” for more.
#12. Identities’ Negotiations Between Leaders and Followers
The authors so far have negated the idea of the “great leader”, but they also concede that leaders can shape the group’s identity.
Whether the group has more power to define social identities or whether the leader has more power to tell the followers what the group stands for depends on contexts and situations.
Sometimes the group has precedence, and the leader tries to mold the group’s identity.
Other times, a leader may have reached such iconic status that he comes to define the values of the group he leads.
The authors mention Roosevelt and his handicap.
As he strives valiantly to walk anyway, he represents himself and America as a nation that doesn’t give in to hardships.
The authors don’t say it, but I think that it’s crucial how long a group has existed and how strongly—or not strongly—they have codified their culture.
In the case of a long-standing group with strong cultures, groups will not yield to changing their values, no matter the “status” of the leader.
#13. A Prototypically Exceptional Leader
The group wants its leader to be representative of them and, in a way, like them.
Yet, they also want them to be exceptional.
What’s important to understand here is that “prototypical” doesn’t mean “typical”.
Leaders must not be like individual group members, but like the identity that the group shares in common.
Prototypical means to be uniquely representative of the norms, values, and qualities that define our groups, and that differentiate them from other groups.
Being prototypical means being exceptional and fully representative.
#14. Leaders’ Prototicapility Manipulation
The relationship between a leader and a group is not set in stone, and, as we know, there is no such thing as “reality”.
Often, what appears is more important than what actually is.
We saw Bush earlier landing on a US carrier in a flying suit. Bush was actively constructing his image as a war leader, despite the fact that he never really deployed in any war zone and despite the allegations that he actively avoided Vietnam duty.
Leaders also rarely accept the groups’ definitions as a given, and they seek to mold them to fit themselves and their goals.
Equally, they will seek to define their goals as concrete manifestations of the group’s values and beliefs.
Finally, political leaders will often seek to define the boundaries of the group as broadly as possible, which will mean a larger appeal and more votes.
It’s these leaders’ machinations that lead the authors to call leaders “entrepreneurs of identity”.
But here is the twist: leaders don’t want to be seen as “identity” shapers. They prefer to be seen as a perfect, natural fit.
Say the authors:
Entrepreneurs are what they are.
Interpreters are how they wish to be seen—for if people accept their version of identity as self-evident, the battle for influence is all but won.
Prototypicality & Political Warfare for Leadership
Manipulations of prototypicality are also part of political warfare, with opponents trying to undermine each other’s representativeness.
Sometimes these attacks can be misguided, though.
Political leaders attacking Bush for his “Bushisms” were actually helping him.
It helped him because Bush presented himself as an “All-American” leader closer to the people than to the scholarly elites.
#15. Embed Identity Into Everyday Life
Finally, the authors make the case that to secure the group’s support, leaders need to show some (cultural) proof of identity.
Cultural artifacts such as parades, functions, and celebrations serve that need: to connect with the leadership.
Cultural artifacts also serve as the present proof that leaders can deliver the goods they promise in the future.
They are like a promissory note for what’s about to come.
In a book that blew my mind away, this part was the least convincing for me.
Read more in the “cons” section.
#16. Group Power Struggles
Now for the interesting twist.
Group members don’t just vie against each other for status, power, and leadership.
But also do so in a greater social contest, sometimes using and leveraging outgroups or enemies.
This is social manipulation for power.
As a matter of fact, leaders who are insecure about their position within the group can end up picking fights against outgroups to shore up internal support.
Say to the authors:
Prejudice, discrimination, and even hatred, often actually derive from the struggle for intragroup authority and leadership.
Haslam cites his BBC prison experiment as an example of prisoners’ leadership being highly dependent on the guards’ outgroup.
And a political example of making enemies for power is the McCarthy witch-hunt.
More Leadership Psychology Gold Nuggets
- Watch out for the “Charisma Myth” and any course on charisma: charisma is not so much an intrinsic quality that warrants leadership positions, but it’s more a quality that followers bestow upon leaders for being prototypical and good representatives of the group (see Platow et. al., 2006).
- Attraction, trust, and similarity seem to be more the outcome of group formation than the causes (albeit attraction and liking can facilitate the formation of groups)
- Self-stereotyping is the act of defining oneself as belonging to a certain category. When people self-stereotype, they will find out what the category values and thinks and they will strive to conform
- Group’s prototypicality changes depending on the context: an extremist as an outgroup will make the leader look more prototypical (i.e., similar) to the group
- Leaders must not make it about themselves but about policies, values, and ideals
On why we must all care about leadership and leadership’s dynamics:
Third, just as politics is too important to leave only to politicians, so too leadership is far too important a matter to be left only to leaders.
On shared identity over ego:
Leadership that is grounded in shared identity will always win out over that which is grounded in ego.
This book is a treasure trove of information.
On top of the follow-up articles that I will write and that will draw heavily on it, here are more real-life applications of “A New Psychology of Leadership”:
- There is little evidence that leadership programs translate into actual improvements and results
- Always be careful of leaders’ manipulation
- Keep in mind that embattled leaders can pick enemies and fight just to shore up support
Just a few notes here and there make this a close-to-perfect book:
- Rarely confuses correlation for causation
One of the examples of a shifting sense of identity was that of South Africa post-apartheid.
The supporters of a local sports team went from being feverishly racist to chanting their love for the black Nelson Mandela.
But that says little about shifting social identities.
It’s very possible that people going to the stadium were simply already Mandela sympathizers and people who opposed him never really even thought about buying a ticket.
- Organized social actions are anticipations of what’s about to come
I’m not convinced that parades, events, and other cultural artifacts are the present manifestations of future
Sometimes they are simply shows of power -think of military parades-, of what’s happened in the past -think of “revolution” celebrations- or simply confirmation of “who we are” -think of countries that celebrate the birth of the republic or the end of fascist regimes-.
- Are leaders not guilty when failure strikes?
The authors say that leaders get the credit when things go well but that usually the blame is cast onto the followers when things go wrong.
I disagree with this one.
Leaders often shoulder a lot more blame than they are really responsible for when things go wrong.
As Robert Greene notices in “The Laws of Human Nature“, followers have a dual drive of wanting a leader and also wanting the leader’s head when things turn sour, -which has happened several times in the course of history-.
- Too much faith in groups’ rationality
I feel the author puts too much faith in the “wisdom of crowds” and in their rationality.
People in groups exercise reason and judgment just as much as they do when they are alone
I am surprised the authors don’t recognize that groups can get much more irrational than individuals can.
Just listen to Hitler and Mussolini speak. No single individual would have cheered them so loudly. But gather a crowd of individuals, and you get very little reason and rationality.
The authors say that the “traditional psychology of leadership” says that strong leadership comes at the cost of followers’ strength.
While the new psychology of leadership says that leaders’ and followers’ strengths feed into each other, it doesn’t have to-.
So if they recognize that a leader can dictate identity and rob followers of their agency, why don’t they also recognize that crowds of followers can be hollowed out of their power and act very irrationally?
- In some sources, I couldn’t find the relevant information to back the author’s claims
Being super interested in the topic, I have followed many of the resources the authors quote.
However, sometimes I struggled to find the evidence for what the authors claimed.
As an example, the authors say that Blake Ashforth and Vikas Anand (2003) found that a cult of personality paved the way for the emergence and justification of corruption.
But I didn’t find the paper to fully back that claim, stating instead that charismatic leaders speak for loyalty to the person more than to the mission, but that they can use their charisma for good or negative purposes (note: you have to get the full paper, and the link is just the abstract).
This is simply the best book I have read on anything leadership -both from a theoretical and practical point of view-.
I also appreciate that, contrary to some more academic texts, they also dealt with real-life power dynamics and manipulations.
Such as, what actually happens in real life.
The New Psychology of Leadership is simply the best book on leadership I have ever read.
It’s so good that if it were a race, it would put all other popular leadership books to shame.
I have read lots of leadership books and I always felt there was something missing in them.
Some of them were good, but they were mostly filled with personal anecdotes, survey results—notoriously poor research tools—or simply a bunch of platitudes.
The New Psychology of Leadership changes the game of leadership’s literature.
It is based on evidence, deep psychological investigation, and real, platitude-free advice grounded on both evidence, high-quality real-world analysis, and deep psychological understanding.
I read it on Kindle, and I highlighted 31620 words (by comparison, that’s a wall of text 9 times longer than this review).
And that’s while I was telling myself “stick to the main passages or you will end up highlighting the whole book”.
Obviously, I can only highly recommend “The New Psychology of Leadership” to anyone who’s interested in psychology, social psychology, leadership, and power.
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