Doing leadership: Just tilt your head and strike a power pose… apparently.

A friend of mine came across a recent article on leadership and thought it might be of interest to me. Its title is ‘Connect, Then Lead’ and it was published in the Harvard Business Review last year.[1] This is its central thesis, stated in the authors’ words:

“…by first focusing on displaying warmth—and then blending in demonstrations of competence—leaders will find a clearer path to influence.”

They then go on to detail a range of specific behaviours that we can use to boost our leadership credentials. Speak with lower pitch and volume; share a personal story; smile, but not with raised eyebrows; stand up straight; move with purpose; don’t fidget; and so on. Who would ever have thought that leadership was so straight forward? Well for one, not us. In fact, this sort of advice flies in the face of one of the points we made elsewhere in this blog:

“…no, there is no straight forward leadership checklist, or five step leadership flowchart, or two dimensional leadership matrix. These things are just as likely to inhibit leadership as develop it.”

Yet here we are, with what amounts to a leadership checklist and a two dimensional matrix. Not quite the trifecta, but pretty close. How are we expected to reconcile these messages? The answer is that we shouldn’t. Something has gone wrong in the article my friend sent me.

Actually, I probably owe him a beer. Unbeknownst to him, he has provided the perfect cautionary tale. The article’s efforts at specificity help us make our point; that there is no such thing as specific leadership behaviours outside of the particular social context in which they occur.

Let’s start by being clear in our assessment that the specific advice contained within ‘Connect, Then Lead’ is bad advice. We can’t just be sarcastic about it though. Yes, taken in isolation, without the prelude provided in the article, it does sound ridiculous. Of course generating leadership isn’t as simple as invoking a few behavioural cues toward warmth and competence. If it were then everyone would be doing it. Leadership also wouldn’t have been a centuries old academic mystery. But in the context of the article, coming from the people in lab coats, it does sound like they could be on to something. Maybe these things do work, even if only a little bit.

Two leaders, obviously.[2]

No, we need to be explicit about why the advice is bad. To do this we need to look at the advice in the context of the actual process underlying leadership. As we have stated before, leadership is a process driven by self-categorization. That is, when we define ourselves in terms of a social group or category we internalize the associated attitudes, beliefs, and behaviours. In other words, we adopt the ‘normative content’ as our own. In terms of individual levels of leadership, the person who defines the group or category best, or is central to the ‘cognitive ingroup’, is the person who we most seek to agree with and emulate. The authors recognize this, and this process is even described in that article, albeit briefly:

“As a leader, you must make sure you’re a part of the key groups in your organization. In fact, you want to be the aspirational member of the group, the chosen representative of the group.”

Here is where the article’s advice loses its plausibility; specific behavioural cues will not consistently lead to influence because often those behavioural cues will not be normatively consistent with our psychological ingroups. We just need to remember for a second the sheer range of social groups and categories out there that people identify with. Caringly leaning toward someone show your interest might be exemplary normative behaviour in a range of social groups. And maybe that includes your local work team, or many of your social circles. But in other groups it can be counter-normative. Do you think that this sort of behaviour is normative for the local coal miners’ union, or amongst football fans during a final.[3] No, in these contexts such behaviour would mark us as outgroup members; people not to emulate, but instead to position oneself away from.

Similarly, think about some of the counter culture from your teenage years. There are groups here defined by apathy and disenfranchisement. Standing tall and projecting strength isn’t going to ingratiate you here. Kurt Cobain didn’t win the hearts and minds of millions because he physically embodied control and confidence. Instead he embodied something closer to frustration and disappointment; something that resonated with others feeling that way themselves.

Other obvious examples come from religious groups, where piety and deference, not commanding presence, are what it means to be a member. What becomes apparent is that ’Connect, Then Lead’ is actually setting us a potentially impossible task. The authors are asking us to simultaneously be the psychologically central member of relevant groups, and uniformly adopt the specific behaviours that they have listed. To put it mildly, that’s a problem.

In the end, yes, you could follow the suggested highly specific steps toward leadership, and it will no doubt work some of the time. However, it is going to fail you regularly, and in potentially important moments. Better I think to instead follow our advice. That is, don’t try to bluntly apply notions of leadership across the board. Instead take the time to listen and understand the psychological ingroups that are important to those people you want to lead.

This, of course, will require more effort on your part, but would you really expect leadership to require anything less? …

That covers how the article got it wrong, but what about why the article got it wrong? After all, they seemed to have everything going for them. They get that leadership is best understood as a matter of influence, and they are even aware of the social identity approach. They are also not your run of the mill management charlatans; one of the authors is a senior academic at Harvard no less. Surely if anyone should be getting it right it is these people. So what has led them astray?

That, unfortunately, will have to wait until another post. As a bit of a teaser though, one key issue is the psychologization of social phenomena.[4]

As usual, stay tuned.


[1] Cuddy, A. J., Kohut, M., & Neffinger, J. (2013). Connect, then lead. Harvard business review, 91(7), 54-61.

[2] That’s my last bit of sarcasm for this post, I promise.

[3] Of course, such interpersonal sensitivity and focus might actually be normative in your particular coal miner’s union, or in your own football association. Nevertheless, I am pretty sure you get my point.

[4] Turner, J. C. (1997). Social identity and the concept of prejudice. Paper presented at the ANU Division of Psychology Seminar Program.

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