What does it mean to be a leader? Throughout history, scores of people have stood out for their skill in leading the masses. Now, one of the questions that social psychology asks itself is: why? Classical views of the study of leadership have tried to look for a series of characteristics that shape a leader and allow him to identify as such, but there is too much variability between different leaders for a unique classification is made. A less individual-centered and group-process-oriented view will therefore help us better understand leadership.
John Adair once said that the most important word for a leader is “we” and the least important “I”. This observation offers us a point of view based on social identity. Leadership is maintained through an “we”, a group that unites us and directs us towards the same goal. In this way, the followers will give up their personal interests and act in favor of the group.
Before explaining how the leader is born through group processes and social identity, we will review classic perspectives in the study of leadership. Thus, we will have a more complete vision of all the aspects involved in this leadership process.
Classic views of leadership
When we talk about classical points of view, we focus on the idea of “great man” and his personality. This concept goes back at least to the writings of Plato, in search of the substance which constitutes the leader. The discussion about his personality or characteristics has been going on for about 2,500 years.
In general, from this point of view, it is understood that the leader has great abilities to lead, manage and motivate the rest of the people. It is also attributed an essential characteristic, called “charisma”. But what is charisma? Throughout history, it has received many meanings, all as varied as each other; it even gave rise to circular definitions, such as the fact that charisma forges a leader and that to be a leader means to have charisma.
The biggest problem that arises from this point of view is the heterogeneity that we can find among the leaders. Various studies have been carried out to analyze the similarities between leaders and to look for the characteristics that define or not a leader. However, the results do not offer clear conclusions; the variable that best announces leadership is intelligence, which accounts for 5% of the explanation. The remaining 95% is caused by data we do not yet know.
Thus, personal identity is a poor mechanism for predicting leadership. However, we can see what is happening if we observe the leader’s group or social identity.
Leadership and social identity
First and foremost, if you are unsure of what the terms self-categorization and social identity mean, you can learn more on this page. Knowing these theories will help you better understand what we are now going to explain.
An essential aspect for someone to be a leader is to have followers who recognize them as a leader, either implicitly or explicitly. In other words, there is a group behind every leader, and this group will have its own group identity. This identity will be reflected in a series of characteristics and goals that define the group, and individuals within the group will be identified with many of these characteristics.
Well, the followers are the ones who choose the leader. But what do they focus on to determine leadership? It’s easy to imagine that if the followers have an active social identity, they’ll be looking for someone who represents the characteristics and goals of the group. In their quest, they will compare the leadership applicants with the identity of the group. At this point, one of them will break away and form the exact prototype of the group; a multitude of followers will then see him as the head of the group.
The leader is one who lacks a personal identity, from the point of view of the followers. His whole being represents the group and this turns him into an ideal person to fulfill this role: if he is identical to the group, he cannot go against the interests of the latter. Furthermore, since all members share a group identity, there will be a strong identification and empathy with the leader.
This new point of view goes beyond the deficiencies of classic models of leadership. Defining the leader from each group identity helps us understand the existence of the great variability that exists between different leaders. However, even so, there is still a lot of process to study and research to be done to understand all the mechanisms of leadership.