Reading this book articulated concepts that changed how I view and talk about leadership. The authors start the book by debunking several conventional theories of leadership (e.g. the “Great Man” theory where it’s about the leader’s innate qualities, or a transactional or power approach where people follow leaders in exchange for something) and observing that the contextual contingent nature of leadership indicates something missing from those theories. In particular, they write:
- “Whether or not leadership is successful depends on context.
- Leadership is not a quality of leaders alone but rather of the relationship between leaders and followers.
- Leadership is not just about existing social realities but also about the transformation of social reality.”
They then advance their own theory of leadership, which is based on the idea of “without a shared sense of “us” [which they call social identity], neither leadership nor followership is possible.” Leaders create impact through creating social groups for them to lead: “transformation of the world goes hand in hand with transformation of identity. It is the forging of new forms of shared social identity that motivates the collective forging of new worlds”. Such impact is created through “coordinated, coherent, and concerted social action as individuals work collectively as “us” to achieve identity-related goals”.
Based on that theory they identify four key rules to effective leadership:
- “Leaders need to be in-group prototypes.” They need to be seen as “one of us”, because their ability to motivate action from a group of people depends on other group members being willing to follow their lead as representing “us”. In particular, their characteristics must be “seen to embody both (1) what “we” have in common and (2) what makes “us” different from “them”.”
- “Leaders need to be in-group champions.” They must be seen to be working for the group (“doing it for us”), rather than for their own benefit. They must “promote the group interest in the terms specified by the group’s own norms and values”. One specific consequence of this is that “for would-be leaders, nothing can substitute for understanding the social identity of the group they seek to lead.” Without that understanding, they will be unable to enlist others in a common vision.
- “Leaders need to be entrepreneurs of identity.” The boundaries of “us” and “them” are fluid, so an effective leader intentionally constructs social identities that invite large numbers of people to join them. We can see this in every election as politicians try to position themselves as being uniquely “American”. Their ability to do so determines the impact they can have, as if more people rally to their group, they wield more power to determine collective social action.
- “Leaders need to be embedders of identity.” Once they create the social identity of the group, leaders can translate that into social reality through the use of language, through the use of public events that reify that identity, and through material artifacts that embody that identity (Confederate statues erected during the Jim Crow era come to mind).
I found the third point on leadership as the entrepreneurship of identity to be particularly insightful. An effective leader is one that creates a social identity that is immensely important to individual group members, so important that it will take precedence over any other aspect of identity. The authors write “we refer to the creation of identities as a means to achieve any end at all. For it is through the construction of identities that we create social forces with the size, the organization, and the sense of direction to have an effect on society.” Rather than look for a group to take leadership of, effective leaders create social identities or groups with wide appeal, and demonstrate their ability to deliver results that advance the interests of that group. And in the political realm in particular, “the question of power is ultimately a question of who defines “us””.
In the second edition of the book which I read, they explicitly tie this theory to the rise of strongmen like Trump, Putin and Orban with the story that “external enemies are presented as having brought a noble in-group low so that only through the elimination of that enemy, as orchestrated by the leader, can we resume our rightful place in the world.” Their theory explains how Trump was so effective at activating his “basket of deplorables” constituency to follow him, as he was seen as an outsider (one of “us”) advancing their interest in taking down the “liberal elite” that were destroying this country. In providing a more useful analysis of leadership, they provide the tools to understand how such toxic leaders are effective, and what others can do to more effectively combat them e.g. to appeal to different social identities as Abraham Lincoln did in reshaping what it meant to be American by coining the “proposition that all men are created equal” in the Gettysburg Address.
The final chapter lays out what the authors learned in applying these ideas between the first and second editions of the book, particularly in how leaders could become more effective at attracting followers. The theme is that “successful leadership requires leaders to turn towards the group and its social context”, and they identify three “Rs” as leadership skills to build:
- “Reflecting: Observe and listen to the group in order to understand it. To be a good leader, start by being a good follower. It is impossible to lead a group unless one first understands the nature of the group that is to be led.”
- “Representing: Ensure that your actions reflect and advance the group’s values. All aspects of a leader’s performance must be oriented to displaying how he or she represents the group. The same goes for demonstrating that the leader is concerned with representing the group interest.” A leader won’t get far by ordering people to do things, but can inspire great sacrifice by appealing to a social identity aka do it for “us”. The esprit de corps of military units such as the Navy SEALs demonstrate how effective this can be.
- “Realizing: Deliver, and be seen to deliver, things that matter for the group. Leadership can only thrive if the group is made to matter.” Or from an earlier chapter, “Vision is only useful if it allows us to see and then create a better future. Accordingly, if collective mobilization fails to translate a definition of identity into experienced reality, then that definition will fall by the wayside.”
What I really liked about this book was the insight that creating a sense of “us” is a key leadership skill. People will not follow your lead unless they think you are one of “us”. This applies to coaching as well: one thing I realized I do in intro chats is try to find a point of commonality with the client where we share an identity, by showing I speak their “language”. That connection can create more willingness for them to follow my lead, and makes me more effective as a coach. I was doing it intuitively, but this leadership analysis provides a theoretical basis for why those points of connection matter. And, of course, the skill of Realizing is critical as a coach; unless I deliver results that matter to the client, I will lose any credibility I have.
The theory also explains why certain transition points are difficult in a leadership journey e.g. moving from individual contributor to manager, or manager to a manager of managers, or moving from functional leadership roles to general management roles. In each of those cases, the leader is changing the “us” that they are seeking to lead, and without a strong commitment to fostering a social identity focused on the advancement of the new larger “us”, they risk not being seen as “one of us” which makes it harder for them to earn the trust of their new teams. We’ve all heard the advice to do a “listening tour” when starting a new job or taking on more responsibility, and I would now explain this as using the above skill of Reflecting to learn about the new “us” you will be leading.
This book also explains why storytelling is such a critical skill for leaders – they have to inspire people to adopt a social identity with a story that explains what makes the “us” special and worth prioritizing over other potential identities. They also have to lay out the characteristics that makes “us” different from “them”, and the principles that make “us” work. What’s critical here is that it’s not about the leader showing how special or different they are, but about the leader demonstrating how they are representative of the “us” they want to lead, and how they will help lead “us” to achieve results in the world. They reshape reality through “a continuously evolving and dynamic process whereby reality feeds into identity, which feeds into leadership, which feeds back into reality.”
Lastly, I appreciate that this theory reinforces my thinking around leadership as alignment. Leadership is not about naturally gifted leaders asserting power over weak-willed followers, but about doing the work to craft a social identity that aligns with people’s interests and collectively advancing those group priorities. In particular, the authors describe the difference between leaders exerting “power over” a group rather than “power through” a group, and warn about the common pattern where leaders forget that their power comes from working through the group and start acting as if they alone matter; when they do that, they are no longer seen as part of “us”, and lose their influence/power.
P.S. I’d like to thank Steve March for assigning this book as part of the curriculum for his Unfolding Great Leadership class that I’m taking.