The New Psychology of Leadership: Identity, Influence and Power

Cary L. Cooper recommends a commanding approach that inspires people to want to do things

December 23, 2010

What is the difference between a leader and a boss? In a 1910 speech, former US president Theodore Roosevelt observed that "the leader works in the open, and the boss in covert. The leader leads, and the boss drives." This viewpoint is echoed in this exciting book, which argues that leadership is not about mastering the 10 or 20 decisive traits that drive change and success, but about "the followers", about engaging them to work with the leader to develop the organisation's goals and aspirations. Engaging subordinates and employees is a fundamental part of the leadership process, even in difficult times.

In another recent book on leadership, Cary Cherniss, a Rutgers University academic, recounted how Kenneth Chenault, the head of American Express, helped his company after the events of 11 September 2001, when 12 of the company's employees died and many more were made homeless.

He had the company contact all 6,000 employees who worked in New York City, helped those who were homeless to find accommodation, made personal visits to the families of all those who died and organised a meeting to see what else the company could do for them.

This was about reaching out to the workforce and engaging them to deal with a problem - all of which made the employees feel a stronger identification with the company and ensured "one of the most remarkable recoveries in corporate history".

Alexander Haslam, Stephen Reicher and Michael Platow begin this book by defining leadership, which they contend "is not simply about getting people to do things. It is about getting them to 'want' to do things...if one can inspire people to want to travel in a given direction then they will continue to act even in the absence of the leader."

Focusing on the follower-leader relationship is their niche. The book begins by reviewing the old psychology of leadership, that is, the "great man" and "cult of personality" theories. This has been the main focus of research for many years in psychology - that is, the personality characteristics of leaders, be they key figures in business or politics, or even dictators. Here, the authors provide an outstanding review of the literature that I would highly recommend to my postgraduate students and managers.

The second chapter highlights the current psychology of leadership, exploring the context of leadership, the contingency approach and issues of transactional, transformational and other current topical constructs.

Here the authors also begin to weigh the importance of the follower in the leader-follower dynamic, going on in the third chapter to explore the foundations for the new psychology of leadership. This is a well-thought-out conceptualisation, primarily focusing on social identity theory, that draws on a number of high-profile leaders, and the research literature, to highlight the link between an individual's social identity and the social cohesion of a team or organisation. Martin Luther King's famous "I have a dream" speech and John F. Kennedy's call to arms to fight "tyranny, poverty, disease and war" in his inaugural address are cited as proof that "that transformation of the world goes hand-in-hand with transformation of identity".

Succeeding chapters further develop the constructs intrinsic to the authors' new psychology of leadership: "Being one of us", "Doing it for us", "Crafting a sense of us" (leaders as entrepreneurs of identity), "Making us matter" and concluding with "Identity leadership at large" (the prejudice, practice and politics of leadership).

What I like about this book, and why I will recommend it to anyone interested in leadership, is how the science of leadership is mingled in a readable way with historical and modern-day examples. It is a must-read for those seeking a different approach to the "five ways to success as a leader" type of book. Mark Twain summed up real leadership in a way these authors would surely agree with: "Keep away from people who try to belittle your ambitions. Small people always do that, but the really great make you feel that you, too, can somehow become great."

The New Psychology of Leadership: Identity, Influence and Power

By S. Alexander Haslam, Stephen D. Reicher and Michael J. Platow

Psychology Press

296pp, £45.00 and £17.50

ISBN 9781841696096 and 6102

Published 28 September 2010

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