Home > Philosophy, Politics, Science > The New Psychology of Leadership

The New Psychology of Leadership

Michael J. Platow , S. Alexander Haslam and Stephen D. Reicher write in Scientific American Mind:

Recent research in psychology points to secrets of effective leadership that radically challenge conventional wisdom.

“Today we’ve had a national tragedy,” announced President George W. Bush, addressing the nation for the first time on September 11, 2001. “Two airplanes have crashed into the World Trade Center in an apparent terrorist attack on our country.” Bush then promised “to hunt down and to find those folks who committed this act.” These remarks, made from Emma T. Booker Elementary School in Sarasota, Fla., may not seem extraordinary, but in subtle ways they exemplify Bush’s skill as a leader. When viewed through the lens of a radical new theory of leadership, Bush’s 9/11 address contains important clues to how the president solidified his political power in his early months and years in office.
In the past, leadership scholars considered charisma, intelligence and other personality traits to be the key to effective leadership. Accordingly, these academics thought that good leaders use their inborn talents to dominate followers and tell them what to do, with the goal either of injecting them with enthusiasm and willpower that they would otherwise lack or of enforcing compliance. Such theories suggest that leaders with sufficient character and will can triumph over whatever reality they confront.

In recent years, however, a new picture of leadership has emerged, one that better accounts for leadership performance. In this alternative view, 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. By leadership, we mean the ability to shape what followers actually want to do, not the act of enforcing compliance using rewards and punishments.

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