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Guest Post: The New Psychology of Leadership

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By Lauren BaileyThe vast majority of leadership advice — whether it’s relayed in leadership books, management conferences or discussed casually in blogs — focuses on the qualities of individual leaders. From examining the lives of different noted leaders to distilling specific personality traits that researchers think constitute sound leadership, the emphasis is always on the individual. In a relatively new book called The New Psychology of Leadership: Identity, Influence, and Power, the authors take a completely different approach. Instead of focusing on the leader, they focus on the followers.

The authors, Drs. Alexander Haslam, Stephen Reicher, and Michael Platow, all social psychology professors, argue in their book that leadership literature has paid too much attention to “I-ness” to the detriment of “we-ness”. They note in their book’s introduction:

In order to understand leadership properly, our gaze needs to extend beyond leaders alone; in particular it needs to consider the followers with whom they forge a psychological connection and whose effort is required in order to do the work that drives history forward…We need this broad gaze because the proof of leadership is not the emergence of a big new idea or the development of a vision for sweeping change. Rather, it is the capacity to convince others to contribute to processes that turn visions and ideas into reality and that help to bring about change. For this reason, leadership is always predicated on followership, and the psychology of these two processes is always inextricably intertwined.

This, in a nutshell, is the jumping off point from which the professors explain their conception of leadership. Drawing largely from social identity theory, a set of social psychological theories that sets out to determine how people behave in groups, the book explains that what constitutes a great leader is how he or she is able to fashion a group identity of which the leader is a part, not above. The authors explain:

Followers can only be moved to respond enthusiastically to a leader’s instruction when they see the leader as someone whose psychology is aligned with theirs when he or she is understood to be ‘one of us’ rather than someone who is ‘out for themselves’ or ‘one of them’

Sounds like a simple enough explanation, but the authors go into a great deal of detail as the book unfolds. Best of all, although the book is written by academics, it is written in a straightforward, easy to understand way, making use of relatable historical examples and trends.

The first part of the book largely focuses on a far-reaching overview of previous leadership psychology the “old psychology of leadership” to which this new psychology ostensibly opposes. However, the authors don’t claim that the old psychology, the one in which the “cult of personality” was a recurrent theme, is wrong per se. Rather, they hold that its emphasis is flawed because it is derived from a romantic, outdated notion of the “great man.” As the book progresses, the authors explain the need for this new psychology then go on to describe what a leader is in terms of their new theoretical coordinates. Chapters from this point in the book are “leaders as in-group prototypes”, “leaders as in-group champions”, “leaders as entrepreneurs of identity” and “leaders as embedders of identity”.

Essentially, “The New Psychology of Leadership” progresses through a systematic and very well-researched idea of what, precisely a leader does and how he functions on a social level. Considering that we are now in an age in which “social” is an important buzzword in the corporate as well as political and private realms, this book has much to offer in terms of rethinking old ideas.

As noted in a The Higher Education Times review:

It is a must-read for those seeking a different approach to the ‘five ways to success as a leader’ type of book. Mark Twain summed up real leadership in a way these authors would surely agree with: ‘Keep away from people who try to belittle your ambitions. Small people always do that, but the really great make you feel that you, too, can somehow become great.

This guest post is contributed by Lauren Bailey, a freelance writer, who writes for online colleges. She welcomes your comments at her email Id: blauren99 [at] gmail.com.

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