Leadership has many faces and types, depending on the era and context. The most common leadership concepts in the United States are charismatic, contingency, transformational and authentic leadership. Reicher et al. (2007), in their article “The New Psychology of Leadership,” argue that transformational or authentic leadership styles are the most successful approach, as they follow the principle of matching followers’ social and group identity. This paper aims to apply the ideas from the article to the leadership roles in relationship to followers.
Leader as an Embodiment of Followers’ Social Identity
The most practical idea from this article is the authors’ assertion that modern leaders should not be dictators who impose their will or charismatic inspirers, but the embodiment of their followers’ group social identity. Using the example of George W. Bush, Reicher et al. (2007) suggest that speech and clothing can be good choices to express the followers’ values. Simultaneously, the set of personal qualities and beliefs of a leader can change depending on what group of followers they represent.
This concept was first proposed by Henri Tajfel and John C. Turner in the 1970s when they discovered that the group defines the part of a person’s sense of self. Remarkably, this sense of social identity “allows people to identify and act together as group members” (Reicher et al., 2007). Therefore, social identity is the primary and inalienable condition of group behavior, as it allows the group to find common ground and pursue common goals.
In other words, no leader will gain the approval and submission of followers if they are not part of a group and do not share the social identity of that group. And this is not a whim of the followers but just a natural condition for groups’ functioning. Understanding this fact is very important for realizing the role of a leader of any scale – from managing a small company to becoming an ideological inspirer of the entire nation. If I had to run a company or had a subordinate group of followers, I would certainly apply this principle since, in practice, it gives good results. A leader who shares common values and struggles with the same circumstances as other group members best understands the group’s needs and can most effectively lead it towards the achievement of common goals.
On the other hand, if the leader has goals different from those of the group, they will have to pretend to share a group social identity. Many followers will easily recognize this pretense, which will destroy the leader’s authority. Therefore, when, for example, executives require top managers to lead effectively and achieve goals that are beneficial exclusively for the company but not for the employees, this can become a serious challenge. One way or another, the top manager will resort to authoritarianism, representing executives who do not share the top manager’s leadership style. Unfortunately, throughout my work experience in various companies with rather complicated organization, I made sure of the validity of this argument.
On the contrary, if the top management of the company acts in the groups’ interests, for example, when the head of the nation implements new policies in the best interests of all society members, then we can talk about a genuine sharing of common goals and the strengthening of a common social identity. But still, the leader will not have the opportunity to impose a new social identity on followers. They will only be able to build a new policy after adhering to existing social trends and values.
Social Identity and Social Reality
In the second part of the article, the authors give an example of Abraham Lincoln, who united the nation in his campaign speech appealing to common American values. During this speech, the most revered American president convinced his followers to support his reforms to unify the states and emancipate the slaves. Moreover, Lincoln enriched the social identity of his followers by proclaiming the basic provisions of the Constitution. Then, scholars mention another essential element of successful leadership – the correspondence of social identity to social reality. Reicher et al. (2007) speak about the importance of creating conditions for the realization of social identity. They emphasize the importance of a corresponding social reality. Without such a reality, the followers will not find a way to express themselves, and their social identity may quickly change to its opposite.
Let us leave the example of heads of state and return to the reality of large and small companies that do business, which is closer to my personal experience. In this case, social reality will be dictated by the market, the tax policy, stability, and material security in the country where a business is conducted. Ethical business leaders – and ethics is an indispensable quality of transformational and authentic leaders – will act in the group interests, allowing their subordinates to fulfill their potential and meet their needs within the framework of social reality. Ideally, the group vision will enrich and be enriched by senior management’s vision and form a broader and deeper perspective on social reality.
Thus, the concepts from the article were applied to the leadership roles in relationship to followers. The most important thing is to understand and accept the idea that a leader should share and express followers’ social identity. The second aspect of effective leadership is finding or creating a social reality that will become a space for expressing a group’s social identity. By fulfilling these two requirements, the leader can accomplish their role by becoming the driving force that guides the group towards its common goals.
Reicher, S. D., Haslam, S. A., & Platow, M. J. (2007). The new psychology of leadership. Scientific American Mind, 18(4), 22-29.