Insight |

What makes a good leader? The new psychology of leadership

What makes a good leader? The new psychology of leadership

What makes a good leader? The new psychology of leadership

Insight |

What makes a good leader? The new psychology of leadership

What makes a good leader? The new psychology of leadership

What is effective leadership?

Effective leadership is the process of influencing, motivating and supporting others to achieve common goals. If you’ve ever had a good leader or manager (which hopefully you have!) you probably felt more engaged and satisfied in your job. Equally, if you’ve had a bad manager, your work and happiness may have suffered, too.

So, what exactly makes a good leader? If you’re asking this question, you’re not alone. Experts across many fields – politics, psychology, management, and more – have spent years trying to pinpoint the key ingredients to leadership, and in this post we’ll be taking a deep dive into leadership theory to bring you some answers.

Trait theory and that special “something”

If I asked you to think about what makes a good leader (go on, think of three things right now), no doubt you would come up with a list of traits, qualities or abilities. Intelligence typically features highly on such lists, along with things like integrity, people skills and emotional intelligence.

This idea that leaders have a unique set of traits that sets them apart from others is not new, in fact, it can be traced back thousands of years to the Greek philosophers. Socrates, just like us, tried to figure out the recipe for good leadership and put forward the following five traits.

  1. Quickness of learning
  2. Good memory
  3. Courage
  4. Broadness of vision
  5. Physical presence and prowess

While physical presence and prowess probably won’t do as much good for a leader sitting in a corporate office in 2021 as it did for those going out to fight battles back in 490BC, interestingly, the other four traits largely hold for today’s workplace and indicate some sort of continuity in the traits that have defined leaders over time. This brings us to our next question, can these leadership traits be learned, or are they innate?

Are great leaders born?

Do you believe that some people are born to be leaders, and the rest of us are destined to be followers? So too did ancient Greek philosopher, Plato, who theorized that effective leaders are simply “great men”, made of the “right stuff”. They have what it takes to lead. But what exactly is it?

Contemporary psychology and management theorists have tried to isolate what this special something is, with many landing on the concept of “charisma”. Consider some of the most impactful leaders of our time – Obama, Nelson Mandella, Bill Gates, even Hitler (note that we said impactful not good) – they all had a type of charisma that saw masses of people championing their cause.

Although it’s widely agreed that charisma enables a leader to inspire their followers towards a vision, the construct itself is difficult to both define and measure, which poses problems for identifying and developing good leaders in organizations.

What’s more problematic with the charisma explanation is that it isn’t always stable. For example some leaders are loved by some groups and not others, or in certain contexts and not others.

If a leader’s approval ratings change (which they so often do), does this mean they no longer have charisma? Does this mean they’ve lost the special something that made them born to be a leader?

Although trait theories provide a simple way of explaining good leadership, they don’t quite account for the dynamic, multi-dimensional and rapidly-changing landscapes that leaders lead in. So, let’s take a look at another prominent theory to see whether it can fill the gaps.

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Leadership and power

Another common way of looking at leadership is through the use of power as a resource.

French and Raven’s famous taxonomy of power outlines five bases of power (to which they later added a sixth) that leaders either possess or have at their disposal to exert influence or elicit control.

  1. Legitimate: power based on the leader’s authority, status or role.
  2. Reward: power based on the ability to give rewards or compensation.
  3. Coercive: power based on the ability to inflict punishment or consequences.
  4. Expert: power based on the possession of specialized knowledge or skills.
  5. Referent: power based on followers identification with, respect for or desire to be like the leader.

Let’s take a look at an example to see how this works in action. Your manager comes to you and asks you to work on an extra environmental sustainability project that isn’t typically part of your role. If you agree simply because they are your manager and you feel obligated to, this is a response to their legitimate power, which comes from their role in your organizational hierarchy. You do what they say, because they’re your boss.

However, if they incentivized you by saying you would get a bonus, or that if you didn’t do it, you wouldn’t get a bonus, then this would be a display of reward and coercive power.

Or, maybe your boss brings the environmental manager along to a meeting with you, and because they’re a subject matter expert i.e. they have “expert power”, you believe that the project must be important and agree to take it on.

As an example of the fifth type of power, referent power, if you’ve had a manager you really liked or looked up to, then you’ll be able to relate to wanting to do the project, rather than feeling forced or obligated to, because of this affinity with them.

French and Raven later added a sixth source of power, informational power, which is similar to expert power, but lies in the ability to use information to persuade. So, in this example, perhaps your boss and the SME presented a bunch of facts and statistics about why this particular project needs to be undertaken and as such, you are persuaded to take it on.

So that’s a hypothetical example, but how do these sources of power actually play out in organizations? A large body of evidence links the various forms of power to various organizational outcomes. For example, Elandgovan and Xie found that higher perceived levels of legitimate, expert, reward and referent power were associated with higher levels of employee commitment. However, they also found an inverse relationship between coercive power and commitment which means that (unsurprisingly) employees do not react favorably to force or punishment.

Although the power model provides another interesting angle through which to view leadership, both of these models grossly oversimplify the dynamics at play in both organizations and social interactions. In their book, The New Psychology of Leadership: Identity, Influence and Power, Professor of Social and Organizational Psychology at the University of Queensland, Alexander Haslam and his colleagues explain a number of key reasons why.

  1. Leadership isn’t transactional

In real life, leadership isn’t simply about amassing and wielding various power sources, and followers don’t just comply like puppets. Followers have both agency in their choices and unique and complex motivations. In fact, research shows that intrinsic motivation (i.e. wanting to do something because it’s inherently interesting and fulfilling) is often stronger than extrinsic motivation (i.e. doing something because someone tells you to, for reward or to avoid punishment). The use of extrinsic motivators can even undermine intrinsic motivation, which pokes a bit of a hole in the power model.

  1. Leadership isn’t static

These theories also ignore the fact that leadership is a fluid, adaptive, and largely contextual process. Sure your leader might be kind and diplomatic in some situations, but in others, they might have to make tough choices that are seen as neither kind nor diplomatic by the party who’s at the receiving end.

  1. Leadership isn’t a one-to-one process

A final problem with these theories of leadership is that they view it as an individualistic, one-to-one process, yet without a group of followers, does a leader even really exist?

Leadership doesn’t live in a leader, or a follower, it is rooted in the group as a whole, and it’s negotiated and reinforced by the group’s expectations, norms, interactions and interrelations. And because of these forces, followers often act not for personal self-interest, but on behalf of and for the “greater good” of the group. We explain why in the next section.

Leadership as “we”

We often think of our identity as a highly personal, individualized entity. But our identities have another dimension to them, one that is shaped by the various organizational, cultural and social groups we are part of.

For example, when I’m at work, I define myself as a “writer”, “marketer” or “intelliHR employee”, when I’m studying I’m a “student”, or “psychology major”, and in a family context I’m a “daughter” or “sister”.

These different identities are known as “social identities”, according to Tajfel and Turner. A particular identity will be more or less salient depending on the situation and identities of other people and groups around you.

For example, if the marketing team was in a meeting with the engineering and sales teams, then my identity as “one of the marketing team” might dominate; however, if I was wanting to differentiate myself from my team or if my unique set of skills was particularly important in that context, then my “writer” identity might prevail.

These social identities play a crucial role in our attitudes, values, beliefs and actions. When a group rather than individual identity is salient, behavior is driven by the “us” not the “I”, so leaders must also make it all about the “us”. This is something that Haslam calls the new psychology of leadership: identity leadership.

Leadership, and the power to influence a group of people, is not bound up in the qualities, skills or types of power that leaders possess, but in their ability to embody and promote a shared social identity and the interests of the group.

According to Haslam and colleagues, to be effective, leaders must:

  1. Signal that they are one of us (be a prototypical group member).
  2. Create a shared sense of us (identity entrepreneurship).
  3. Demonstrate that what they are doing is for the greater good of the collective us (identity advancement).
  4. Work to make us matter (identity impresarioship).

One example that can help to unpack this theory in comparison to trait and power theories is the all-too-familiar COVID-19.

We could argue that the public followed lockdowns and related restrictions simply because their leaders told them to (legitimate power), or because there were fines for non-compliance with quarantines or mask-mandates (coercive power). We could also reason that it was because of a leader’s personal qualities, like New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern who was praised for her empathetic leadership style, compassion and down-to-earth “ness”.

While these factors certainly played important roles, it was more than this. Haslam explains that “People locked down, even when this came at a considerable personal cost. Moreover, they did so for the greater good of the various community, state and national groups they saw themselves to be part of.

And these groups are something that leaders who use an identity leadership strategy proactively work to define and strengthen. Here’s how.

A good leader is one of “us”

Jacinda Ardern, in particular, knew how to leverage identity leadership to gain trust and support from her followers. She demonstrated that she was “one of us” (us being the New Zealand public) by showing a unique glimpse into her personal, home life. She appeared live on Facebook to answer the questions of her nation, calling out the fact that she was in sweats and at home with her family – “excuse the casual attire, it can be messy business putting a toddler to bed”.

Where other world leaders were appearing in unrelatable, stuffy suits, Ardern effectively positioned herself as real and relatable, which helped make her directives more palatable to the public.

Perhaps you had a similar experience in your organization if you were one of the many who shifted to remote work during COVID-19. All of a sudden, seeing your manager in a hoodie, without makeup on, and working from their kitchen table helped hammer home that we were all the same, and all in the same boat.

A good leader creates a sense of “us”

Teams in organizations are about more than just the practicality of organizing and conducting work. They exist to create a shared sense of “us” that motivates team members to support each other and work together towards common goals. And love them or hate them, if you’ve ever participated in any team bonding exercises or corporate days, this is your leader attempting to build this common shared identity.

Similarly, politicians work to carefully curate collective identities for their people through the use of a variety of tools and techniques, like language and rhetoric. Steffens and Haslam analyzed the election campaign speeches of 43 Australian Prime Ministerial candidates and found a direct relationship between the use of collective pronouns (we, us) and election wins: those who were elected to office made 61% more references to “we” and “us” (vs “I”). And this use of “we” language was particularly prevalent during COVID-19, says Haslam.

“Politicians relied heavily on “we” language during the pandemic to engender the belief that if you defied stay-home orders, you wouldn’t just be putting yourself at risk, but also your family, community and country.”

Another technique that’s commonly used to create and strengthen this sense of us is pitting the ingroup, us, against the outgroup, them. This is really common in politics (think conservatives vs liberals) sport (USA vs UK), organizations (you vs your competitors) and even friendship groups.

In addition to we language, groups work to differentiate themselves through special jargon, nicknames and inside jokes, and as a leader, this is something you can facilitate and support. Take heed though: a little bit of healthy competition is fine, but don’t let it get nasty.

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A good leader does it for “us”

Leaders who appear to be self-interested or only in it for themselves don’t last long. Leaders who promote, defend, advocate for, and champion group interests and goals, on the other hand, are more likely to succeed.

When you know a leader has your back, this will, in turn, lead to greater trust, perceived authenticity and support.

Leaders who showed that during COVID-19 they too were making sacrifices were the most successful at gaining public support. Whereas others, like UK Senior Advisor Dominic Cummins who traveled 250 miles during a lockdown, undermined the public’s trust and commitment to lockdown by implying that a different set of rules applied to them.

A good leader makes “us” matter

Lastly, effective leaders work to create and maintain structures and rituals that embed the “us” into everyday life.

A really simple example of this with regards to COVID-19 is the daily press conferences in Australia. Before the pandemic, I rarely watched press conferences, and although I followed government social pages, little attention did I pay to them. Enter COVID-19, and I was tuning in for updates every day, and highly engaged with their social media. These rituals, and small but finely-tuned communications made me feel part of something bigger, made me care about what was going on, and made me listen to my government leaders.

Although Donald Trump’s management of COVID-19 was questionable at best, he was still highly effective at mobilizing Americans through identity leadership and the rallies he used to hold, where thousands of his followers would turn out sporting all manner of Trump paraphernalia.

In organizational contexts, companies like Salesforce and Virgin are well known for their lavish staff parties, events which are designed to embed that sense of “us” and pride in their workers, which has huge flow-on effects for company culture, retention and the bottom line.

Quick tips for leaders to lead through a shared identity

While the notion of identity leadership might be new to you, Haslam says that you’re probably already doing it in some form.

“Because social identities are a core aspect of social functioning and the way we navigate everyday life, identity leadership is a vital part of all the groups in our lives, and plays a critical role in helping social identities to function. At the same time, though, the skills of identity leadership are ones that we can also develop and hone.”

Identity leadership and creating this sense of us is particularly pertinent for today’s remote and hybrid workplaces, where, because employees aren’t spending as much time with their teams and at the office, there’s an ongoing threat to our sense of connection to workplace communities.”

So here are some quick tips you can follow to start being an identity leader today.

  • Be one of the team. Don’t always have your “work face” on. Take off any facade, be real, be raw, and be vulnerable; you’ll be more relatable and your team will thank you for it.
  • Use “we” language and don’t make it about yourself, make it about your team.
  • Create rituals and structures to support the sense of team identity. This might be a team values, mission or vision, a Zoom background or logo, decorating your workspace or team lunches.
  • Establish fun team challenges or competitions against other teams in your organization, or your partners and clients.

Final note and key takeaways

Without followers, a leader is just a person, and as a leader, if you’re not paying close attention to your team with its own norms, culture, relationships and expectations, you may as well be running around in the dark. While certain leadership qualities, traits and skills can help a leader enhance their effectiveness, it’s more about what you do than what you have or who you are.

Key takeaways:

  • Leadership is a dynamic, negotiated and continually evolving group process.
  • Effective leaders are “we”-oriented and don’t seek to stand out from their team, they support, empower and enable them from within.
  • Leaders who care about the group’s interests and put the group first will receive greater support.

Lastly, if you’re looking for evidence of good leadership, you won’t find it in the leader, but in their team. Are they happy, do they collaborate, are they productive and performing well? What’s the culture like? If you’re looking to build, enhance or measure your leadership capability, intelliHR’s performance and engagement tools and real-time analytics can help you explore and gain insight into their team and people around them.


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