Why leadership isn't always fair

Leadership is rarely a solo performance. While it may be cliché that a good leader is only as good as their team, this statement does at least prompt us to consider how social identity shapes our ability to work with others.

Benjamin Disraeli said: “I must follow the people. Am I not their leader?” – an interesting observation on the nature of the leader-follower dynamic. Leaders, he suggests, do not always lead from the top of the social pyramid. As leadership guru Warren Bennis said a century later, leaders must position themselves among the group rather than above it to gain credibility.

At the opposite end of the societal spectrum from the great man theory of the 1840s, the social identity theory holds that leadership is a product of social relationships. As the social psychologists Alexander Haslam, Stephen D. Reicher and Michael J. Platow noted: “For leadership to function well, leaders and followers must be bound by a shared identity and by the quest to use that identity as a blueprint for action.”

The most successful leaders, then, are not those with positional power, but those who best reflect and represent the group’s identity. To create change, they must go one step further, too – and define and actively shape their group’s social identity in line with their own vision for its future. In Haslam’s words, the leader’s role is about ‘shaping social identities so that the leader and his or her proposals are seen as the concrete manifestation of group beliefs and values’.

Group psychology

It is thanks to the psychological power of groups that successful leaders can shape their identities in this way. In the 1970s, Tajfel and Turner made ground-breaking discoveries about how part of a person’s sense of self comes from the particular groups with which they identify (their ‘in-groups’). Haslam and Reicher reiterated the relevance of social identities for leadership in the BBC Prison Study, an investigation of social behaviour and power imbalance in a simulated prison environment.

Credibility and ‘fitting in’

Interim charity director Alison Cowan agrees it is important for leaders to identify with other members of the group, but offers a word of caution about remaining authentic: “We’ve all watched people try desperately to prove they are one of the gang and it can be cringe-inducing (think David Brent, for example). I don’t think staff need leaders to be just like them. What they need is for leaders to understand what it’s like to be in their shoes. To remember what it’s like not to be in a position of power or authority. If you’ve not done a lower-level role yourself, you have to go back to the floor often enough to genuinely understand what it’s like.”

As Kouzes and Posner concluded in Credibility: How Leaders Gain And Lose It, credibility is critical to any working relationship. Anything that creates a distance between leader and group may undermine their credibility and, therefore, their influence. The same may be true if there is an evident and unfairly wide pay gap between leader and subordinates. (The American financier JP Morgan observed that the only common feature shared by the failing companies he worked with was a tendency to overpay those at the top.)

Alison Cowan has first-hand experience of how easily credibility can be lost in this way: “Early in my career, I remember a director standing by my desk exclaiming that he didn’t know how anyone could live on £10k a year – in front of a group of staff (including me) who did exactly that. He hadn’t stopped to think about who was in earshot or just how much he was alienating them. He destroyed any respect he had previously had in a matter of seconds.”

Conformity and ‘groupthink’

While developing a shared social identity may be critical to influential leadership, there are risks associated with excessive conformity.

‘Groupthink’ – a term coined by Irving Janis in 1972 – is a psychological phenomenon that occurs when group members value their desire for harmony or conformity above the need for independent thought and rational decision-making. They ignore alternative opinions and steer clear of controversial issues in order to reach a consensus.

Highly cohesive groups that are isolated from outside influences and draw members from similar backgrounds are particularly vulnerable. Significant pressure to reach a consensus is another risk factor.

Fairness, risk and out-groups

Janis identified eight negative symptoms of groupthink, including the ‘illusion of invulnerability’, which causes the group to over-estimate its decision-making abilities and significantly under-estimate the abilities of the ‘out-group’. This results in a tendency towards extreme risk-taking.

Another negative outcome is a ‘belief in inherent morality’. This causes members to disregard the consequences of their decisions and can lead to dehumanizing actions against the out-group. For example, in one study in New Zealand, people supported the CEO of a health board who allocated time on a kidney dialysis machine equally between two fellow New Zealanders. But when the CEO was asked to split the time between a New Zealander and a foreigner, they liked the leader who gave more time to the in-group member. While followers generally respect fairness in leaders, the definition of fair treatment is not always clear-cut.

Differentiating yourself from the competition

As Haslam, Reicher and Platow have observed, when a leader is prototypical of their group’s identity, they also exemplify what makes it distinct from other groups.

We all know that standing out from the competition is a cornerstone of business success. Nevertheless, the results of a 2000 study by Haslam and Turner are surprising:

“We asked business students to choose the ideal characteristics for a business leader. When the students were confronted with a rival group that had an intelligent leader (who was also inconsiderate and uncommitted), the students wanted their leader to be unintelligent (but considerate and dedicated). But when the rival leader was unintelligent, virtually nobody wanted an unintelligent leader.”

If group identity can be considered more important than a leader’s (relative) intelligence, we really have come a long way from the great man theory. Surely there can be no more convincing proof that strong leadership is a product of social relationships rather than the accomplishment of individual character traits.

This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of Virgin.com. Please see virgin.com/terms for more details. Thumbnail from gettyimages.


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