The makings of great leaders

Journal name:
Nature
Volume:
466,
Pages:
819–820
Date published:
DOI:
doi:10.1038/466819a
Published online

Leadership, Michael Bond learns from two new books, is not about getting people to do things, it is about getting them to want to do things — and it emerged on the African plains.

The New Psychology of Leadership: Identity, Influence and Power

By S. Alexander Haslam, Stephen Reicher and Michael J. Platow Psychology Press: 2010. 304 pp. £45 ISBN: 9781841696096

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“A leader is best when people barely know he exists,” surmised the Chinese philosopher Lao-tzu. Yet no modern prime minister or president would run things from the back room. Today's figureheads are lauded for having quirks of character that set them apart from the crowd — such as the superior charisma and intelligence of Winston Churchill or Abraham Lincoln.

P. SINGH/AFP/GETTY

Sonia Gandhi, leader of the Indian National Congress Party, worked hard to mobilize grass-roots support.

Our obsession with the personalities of great leaders is out of kilter with the scientific basis of social hierarchies, according to two books. In The New Psychology of Leadership, psychologists Alexander Haslam, Stephen Reicher and Michael Platow propose that successful stewardship owes more to the good relationship between a leader and his or her followers than to an individual's character. In Selected, psychologist Mark van Vugt and journalist Anjana Ahuja take an evolutionary approach, suggesting that leadership emerged to aid the survival of small communities on the African plains.

Haslam, Reicher and Platow are known for their work on social identity and group dynamics. They maintain that effective leadership is about winning the hearts and minds of others rather than about good decision-making or management. “It is not about getting people to do things. It is about getting them to want to do things,” they remark. The authors cite laboratory studies, including their own, which show that members who embody and promote a group's shared values are more likely to emerge as spokespeople. Leaders must be seen to be both typical of their group and acting in its collective interests.

Influential leaders such as Churchill, Lincoln, John F. Kennedy and Sonia Gandhi worked hard to build this shared identity, which they enhanced using their rhetoric and creative skills. Even George W. Bush, ridiculed for his gaffes, was good at connecting with his supporters — winning over ordinary voters with his casual dress and plain speaking. The book's examples are drawn mainly from politics, but the principle applies to others whose rank is socially derived, such as captains of sports teams, expedition leaders and army generals.

Selected: Why Some People Lead, Why Others Follow, and Why It Matters

by Mark van Vugt and Anjana Ahuja Profile Books/HarperBusiness: 2010/2011. 272 pp. £12.99/$26.99 ISBN: 0061963836

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But why are there leaders at all? In Selected, Ahuja and van Vugt propose that among early humans, those who had the cognitive capacity to follow others sought safety in numbers. At the same time, leaders made survival more likely for everyone by binding groups together and providing expertise — for example, on which foods could be safely eaten.

Rather than promoting an individual to rule in all eventualities, our early ancestors looked to different people to lead in varying circumstances. A group would follow one leader when hunting, another during war and a third during times of sickness. “If you were to meet a tribesman and ask him to 'Take me to your leader', he would be bewildered by your request,” the authors note. This changed with the development of agriculture 13,000 years ago, which led to an increase in the size and complexity of societies.

Ahuja and van Vugt and argue that our brains are still hard-wired for the savannah. Our psychology remains suited to the dynamics of small groups, not to the hierarchies of large populations that are common in the political systems and organizations of today. Leadership structures would do better to reflect the constraints of our evolutionary history, they suggest. This points to informal, decentralized systems that are limited to 150 members, a size at which people can know each other by name. The authors recommend that organizations avoid large pay gaps between leaders and followers, choose leaders from within and favour consensual decision-making. They also note the importance of deferring decisions to specialists when needed, and the implementation of checks and balances to ensure that a leader cannot coerce, exploit or dominate his or her followers.

Despotic leaders are a recent phenomenon, according to van Vugt and Ahuja. They claim that the agricultural revolution unleashed “our primal tendency to dominate and exploit others”, as it allowed leaders to stockpile food and use it to exert control. This sounds plausible but is hard to verify — a common problem in the examples given in Selected, as anthropological studies and game theory can deliver no more than sketches of ancestral life. Yet the book's practical suggestions are worth taking seriously.

The New Psychology of Leadership barely touches on this negative side of governance, beyond warning that leaders who think individual character is most important will believe that any success is due to them alone — and will consider themselves above the group. It is not clear whether all leaders might succumb to such arrogance. Nor do the authors ask to what ends leaders should put their power, other than helping the group to “create a social world in which [it] can live according to its values”. Yet much conflict is caused by leaders doing just this. This reflects a wider problem with the book: it is so focused on its theory of building social identity that it fails to explore the full implications of leadership.

A greater challenge would be to ask how leaders who have gained their followers' confidence might use it to marry their group's interests with those of others, as Nelson Mandela managed to do in South Africa, and as Israeli and Palestinian leaders have so far failed to do. Haslam, Reicher and Platow suggest that such considerations are beyond psychology. But this undermines their hope that their approach to leadership might bring about a more democratic world.

Both Selected and The New Psychology of Leadership contain the ingredients for a more encouraging social model of leadership. They also bring a scientific approach to an important subject that has been without it for too long.

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  1. Michael Bond is a writer based in London and a locum Opinion editor for Nature.

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  • Michael Bond

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