Heard promises like ours before? Talk of ‘solving’ the great leadership questions. Assurances of clarity in the face of an incoherent field.
Sure, you say. We’ve heard this before.
Fair enough. You are right to be skeptical. In fact, I would be very disappointed if you weren’t. There is a lot of terrible leadership theory out there, as well as countless tools, training, and diagnostics that aren’t worth the paper (or pixels) they’re written on.
Further, even the decent stuff is destined to disappoint. Despite the best intentions, the brightest minds, and often decades of research, more often than not the core of those brand name leadership theories remain formless and gossamer.
So yes, the onus is on us to explain why we are able to do what so many others have failed to do. That is, how is it that only we, or rather social identity theorists, have been able to turn leadership into something tangible and satisfying?
What makes the social identity approach different?
There is an answer, but first we need the context; we need a sense of the the problematic.
We should be able to agree that leadership concerns ‘social influence’, which is when the beliefs, attitudes, or values of one person come to be the beliefs, attitudes, or values of another person through social interaction.
It isn’t just social influence though (remember the first sin of defining leadership) and it isn’t ‘authority’, where we consent to the positions of others because it is normatively accepted to do so.
How then does this ‘other’ type of social influence work?
Pretend for a second that we haven’t already given you the answer. How would you explain it? I would argue that if you try one of the first ideas that will come to mind is that leadership is something positive.
When asked to reflect on leadership we naturally think to our own leadership experiences; the times we were inspired by our heroes and idols, or the times when we ourselves held sway with our friends, peers, or co-workers. In either case, our memories are of something good. This results in a sense that leadership is associated with virtue, justice, and greatness.
It is the same for the theorists. In fact, many of the big names in leadership theory went quite a way down this path: Because our experience of others’ leadership, or our own leadership, is righteous then perhaps leadership comes from righteousness itself. Take Thomas Carlyle for instance. He doesn’t hold back:
“We cannot look, however imperfectly, upon a great man (sic), without gaining something by him. He is the living light-fountain, which it is good and pleasant to be near. The light which enlightens, which has enlightened the darkness of the world.”
Another good example is Max Weber, who 50 years later is credited with connecting leadership with the notion of charisma. For him charisma is “the authority of the extraordinary and personal gift of grace”.
In the end though these perspectives are unsatisfying. They are unsatisfying because such explanations are shallow (i.e. where does this ‘goodness’ really come from?) and because such explanations are divisive (my ‘good’ is different to your ‘good’). The void remained.
This intuitive perspective, however, generates some baggage; baggage that is a problem for understanding leadership. But to grasp that we need to look for a second at the other side of the coin. That is, we have to look at what actually drives this up other type of social influence.
Repeated briefly, the process that underpins our collective experience of leadership is a consequence of self-categorization. In short, we are intrinsically motivated to embody our psychological ingroups, and those who are representative of our ingroups become representative of us; they become our ‘self-referents’. Leadership is thus an issue of ‘group psychology’.
But group psychology gets an incredibly bad rap. In fact, as we have discussed before, since almost the dawn of social science group psychology has been equated with debasement and the loss-of-self. Group psychology is renowned as the psychology of irrationality, impulsivity, discord, and of mobs
Now that, as we have seen, is anathema to our personal experience of leadership. Leadership is experienced as enlightening, organizing, creative, and edifying.
Is it any wonder then that, despite over a century of concerted leadership theorizing, almost no-one looked to psychological groups for the answer? The experience of leadership has largely been disconnected with the process of leadership because the former is experienced as largely positive and the latter is understood as extremely negative.
That’s why we needed the social identity approach to come along. What was different about the social identity approach is that it didn’t pathologize group psychology. For social identity theorists understanding ourselves via our psychological membership of social groups and social categories was par for the course; it was no less rational than understanding ourselves as unique individuals. Moreover, instead of understanding group based influence as a source of bias and error, social identity theorists see group based influence as the source of truth and validity (albeit relative truth and validity).
There lies a big part of the answer to our initial question. It was only once the social identity approach was developed that we were equipped with a non-defamatory and detailed understanding of group psychology and group based influence. That is what was needed before we could understand leadership simply, but meaningfully, as the second pathway to social influence.
Now, that explains maybe a couple of hundred years of delay, but there are other issues.
The social identity approach arose in the 1970’s, and the social identity understanding of social influence was developed in the 1980’s. Why the further postponement? Why are you only hearing about it well into this century?
Partly this is just a matter of social science operating at its usual glacial pace. Although the theory was for the most part good to go by the end of the 1980’s, social identity theorists needed time to build up the evidence base that substantiated these ideas. Also, through the 1990’s social identity theorist were kept busy applying the social identity approach in a variety of other areas (e.g. intergroup conflict, stereotyping, collective action). It was really only in the early 2000’s that social identity theorists started to push strongly into the leadership domain. And once in that domain, of course, the issue becomes making oneself heard amongst the din.
That is where we stand now, and what happens next is hard to say. Will the social identity approach to leadership soar in popularity, or will it slowly build its following? Alternatively, will it languish in the shadows only to be eventually forgotten? I, for one, am quietly confident that this social identity approach will come to dominate the popular understanding of leadership. I am just uncertain about how quickly it will happen.
That being said, the social identity approach has its liabilities. For example, it is truly different to the present offerings of the leadership industry. We can therefore expect resistance from those who find the status quo appealing. This is particularly true of those who are senior in the corporate environment. These (you?) people are served well by something called “the heroic myth” of leadership.
But we will save that story for another post.
 Carlyle, T. (1840). Heroes and hero worship. London: Harrap.
 Weber, M. (1965). Politics as a Vocation. Philadelphia: Fortress Press.
 Oakes, P. J., Haslam, A. S., & Turner, J. C. (1994). Stereotyping and Social Reality. Oxford: Blackwell.
 Turner, J. C., & Haslam, A. S. (2001). Social Identity, Organisations, and Leadership. In M. E. Turner (Ed.), Groups at Work: Theory and Research (pp. 25-65). London: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.
 Haslam, S. A. (2001). Psychology in Organizations. London: SAGE Publications.
 Hogg, M. A. (2001). A social identity theory of leadership. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 5(3), 184-200.
 Haslam, S. A., Reicher, S., & Platow, M. J. (2011). The new psychology of leadership: Psychology Press.