Leadership and Followership
Winter 2008

Family and Relationships

Leadership and Followership

Michael McKinney

When we think about leadership, we tend to focus almost entirely on the leader. Yet without followers, there is no leader. Leadership is participatory: leaders and followers exist in a mutually beneficial relationship where each adds to the effectiveness of the other.

Key to this process is listening, because leadership is as much about listening as it is about talking, or perhaps more so. From the beginning, a leader must be informed by the followers’ values, beliefs, and aspirations, the followers’ identity. The commitment gap people frequently experience, the difference between what the leader desires and what the followers actually do, can often be traced back to not aligning the elements of leaders’ and followers’ identities—who they think they are—to find common ground on which to function and grow.

In an article that appeared in the August 2007 issue of Scientific American Mind, titled “The New Psychology of Leadership,” authors Stephen D. Reicher, Michael J. Platow and S. Alexander Haslam present research supporting the idea that effective leaders—those who can move followers from one behavior to another—grasp what their followers believe they are and represent, and then create a shared identity. They write, “The development of a shared identity is the basis of influential and creative leadership. If you control the definition of reality, you can change the world.”

The link between identity and leadership and its function in understanding the world we live in is therefore of critical importance. Vision contributor Michael McKinney asked two of the article’s authors, Reicher and Haslam, to comment further.

MM     In the Scientific American Mind article you write that “effective leaders must work to understand the values and opinions of their followers—rather than assuming absolute authority—to enable a productive dialogue with followers about what the group embodies and stands for and thus how it should act.” Does this mean that leaders must learn to communicate with the group on the basis of where they are before they try moving them to a new place? 

AH      Essentially yes. The point is that you can’t lead “us” unless you know what “we” stand for.

SR       The core of our argument is that a leader needs to construe him- or herself and his or her policies in relation to the shared group identity. This requires, first, a deep cultural knowledge of the group and its history; and second, a set of rhetorical skills that allow the leader to relate the general (group identity) to the particular (self and policies). How are these acquired? One possibility is to acquire the cultural knowledge from the inside as a function of growing up in the group and having an intuitive grasp of “who we are.” However, it is notable that many leaders have been marginal: Hitler, born in Austria; Stalin, a Georgian; Napoleon, from Corsica; Gandhi, brought up in South Africa. In these cases, the person has to make an explicit study of the group and may indeed become more reflexively aware of the nature of the identity than insiders, whose knowledge is taken for granted. They may also have to work harder at being accepted as insiders and thereby hone their skills.

MM     You define leadership as the followers’ willing compliance with the goals or vision of the leader. If a leader believes it is in the group’s best interest, would he or she ever need to enforce compliance in the hope that willing compliance would eventually follow? 

AH      Sometimes yes, because not all members of a group will have the same confidence that the leader represents them. However, when leaders resort to brute force, it needs to be understood that essentially they are using power, not leading. This is the distinction between “power over” and “power through.” The latter is identity-based; the former is resource-based and is not true leadership.

MM     It would seem that, at first, many dictators do identify with the people and give them what they want. But once the followers’ needs are met, they want less dictatorship and more freedom. In the case of Hitler, it would appear that he rose from the ranks to give them what they wanted: strong leadership and security. His followers moved toward him and he toward them as they both satisfied each other’s needs. They wanted strong leadership and he wanted to be a strong leader. The result, crazed dictatorship, became possible because of the ratcheting-up effect. In the end he was despised by many who had followed him.

AH      I think this analysis is largely correct. The problem was that the content of the group’s identity was itself problematic, so in a sense the group got the leader it wanted (and deserved). 

SR       It is perfectly plausible to suggest that leadership may be a developmental process that works differently at different phases. To start with, one does need popular compliance because one is seen to represent the group. That’s the psychological process we have described: gaining power through others by being seen as one of them. This power can then be used to change the political and institutional structures of a society, to gain control over the mechanism of repression: police, courts, etc. That, then, puts one in a position to outlaw dissent and even to exert power over people if they should choose to disagree with one’s proposals. In a sense, there is a shift from a psychological to a political-sociological basis for leadership. At the end of the process, people may realize that the person they hailed as a liberator has become an oppressor, but it’s too late to do anything; for example, the nature of Hitler’s leadership shifts from pre- to post-1933 with the passage of the enabling law, the rise of the repressive apparatus, and so on. However, we shouldn’t overdo the contrast. Hitler still had popular support even as the repressive apparatus was put in place. The repression itself was seen as defending the group against threat (just as Stalin’s terror was seen by many on the inside as self-defense against enemies). What is more, even if people began to dissent privately, their willingness to challenge the system openly and collectively depended on whether they saw others as embracing or rejecting Hitler. In other words, it may be true that active compliance depends on one’s own acceptance of the leader as an in-group member. However, active opposition depends on perceiving that others reject the leader as an in-group member.

MM     In your article you state that “no fixed set of personality traits can assure good leadership because the most desirable traits depend on the nature of the group being led.” Does this indicate that leadership is learned throughout life through various leader-follower experiences, a kind of leader-follower feedback loop? 

AH      I think that’s probably right, yes. Indeed, we have some (as yet unpublished) work suggesting that the people who turn out to be the best leaders are those who have previously been the best followers. 

SR       There is always a balance in leadership between conforming to existing definitions of the group and reshaping the group identity. It is perfectly true that the ability to advance controversial new notions of identity may depend on being securely accepted as an in-group member. Hence, with time, a leader might be better able to reshape the sense of “us.” It is also true that, insofar as the sense of identity changes as a function of context, the leader needs to be multifaceted and emphasize different facets at different times. Those who fail to do that have a limited shelf life. So, for instance, Britain in war is very different from Britain in peace, and Churchill’s inability to adapt to that resulted in his 1945 defeat.

MM     Dr. David Hulme, in his 2006 book, Identity, Ideology, and the Future of Jerusalem, addresses the role of identity and ideology in the solution to the Jerusalem Question as part of the larger context of the Arab-Israeli conflict. He examines some of the leaders and followers involved in the Arab-Israeli conflict in the context of their identities and ideologies. He notes that in the lives of some of these people, “identity and ideology can shift somewhat through experience.” Do you find that a leader may need to do this to stay relevant and influential? While keeping the end in mind, should effective leaders change their approach and rhetoric as new priorities come into play?

AH      Again, this is correct, and very much consistent with our idea that social identity is itself context-dependent and labile. Accordingly, leaders have to adapt to the changing circumstances of the group—which sometimes proves impossible (think of Churchill after the war).

SR       The issue of leadership and conflict is of critical importance. Often, especially in psychology, we act as if prejudice, hostility and conflict arise unaided from the human psyche rather than analyzing how different leaders create images of the other that facilitate hatred. Accordingly, we have to ask both how and why they do this if we want to overcome it. The how is centered on constructions of identity. That is, hatred characteristically derives from an image of a virtuous “us” under threat of annihilation by a demonic “them.”

Certainly in the Middle East the conflict is fueled by both sides sharing a sense of victimhood, vulnerability and virtuous suffering. As Peter Novick, for instance, has observed, is peace even possible as long as the Holocaust figures so centrally in Israeli identity? It should be stressed that the ways in which these versions of identity are sustained is not only rhetorical but also practical. To take one key example, Ariel Sharon’s jaunt on the Temple Mount was immensely effective in provoking Palestinian anger and then allowing Sharon to argue that peace was impossible with such a violent “other,” and hence the security agenda had to prevail. This example also speaks to the why of leadership action. Simply, if leaders gain power by being seen to represent us, then the invocation of enemies is a very effective way of securing in-group support. First, the very act of identifying an enemy shows one is concerned for the group. Second, and more critically, the fact that one is seen to oppose this enemy more strenuously than one’s rivals do (in Sharon’s case, Barak’s Israeli Labor Party, then in power) is a powerful tool in gaining advantage over those rivals. Thus intergroup hostility can be a tool in intragroup power struggles, and that is often what makes it so difficult to stop such conflict.

MM     According to Hulme, how identities change is an important aspect of hope for resolution in identity- and ideology-based conflicts. You write that “the emergence of social identity helps to explain the transformation in the strategies of rulers associated with the birth of modern nation states.” Would the emergence of social identity—a shared national identity—also help to explain why we sometimes find ourselves at an impasse on issues of national identity, such as the Middle East crisis? Should leaders be placing more emphasis on issues of identity? 

AH      Again, I think this analysis is basically correct, and quite astute.

MM     You write of the symbiotic relationship between leaders and followers in your article. If a leader was trying to move a group to a new understanding or reality, would the process be to tap into their shared identity and then attempt to create a new identity? How malleable is identity? 

AH      I think this is a fairly effective strategy. Tony Blair might be a good example of someone who has transformed the British Labour party in exactly this way (which is not necessarily a good thing!). As with the earlier point, identity is malleable (particularly if the new forms of identity work for followers), but there are limits, as indeed Tony Blair found.

SR       How malleable is identity, then? How much can we reshape it in order to resolve conflict, to change the way we are and what we do? This is an immensely complex question. The short answer, to paraphrase Marx, is that we can make our own identities, but we don’t do so under conditions of our own choosing. Identities have a certain inertia. We do construct them, but over time those constructions are sedimented down into what might be called “material cultures.” What, say, being American means is enshrined in textbooks, in monuments, in the layout of museums and in the structure of institutions. These are all made by people at one point in time as a reflection of identity, but for subsequent generations they become part of the social reality, which in turn shapes identity. If we are to challenge them, then, we need new arguments and new rhetorics, but we also need to create new social realities: new textbooks, new monuments, new rituals, and so on.

The skill of a leader, then, must be practical as well as verbal. Leaders, as we put it, must be impresarios of identity. Perhaps, before they can change the world at large, they need to create new structures within the social movement itself that allow people to “live out” the ideas they are advancing and hence to make those ideas more tangible and convincing.

Clearly, much of this is rather general. These questions represent an agenda for ongoing research—and what exciting research it will be!


The authors are releasing a new book in October 2008 that builds on these concepts. The New Psychology of Leadership: Identity, Influence and Power will be available from Psychology Press.