Pricking the Bubble of Heroic Leadership


The New Psychology of Leadership: Identity, Influence and Power . Haslam, S. A., S. D. Reicher, and M. J. Platow . 2010 . Psychology Press , East Sussex , United Kingdom . 296 pp. $24.75 (paperback). ISBN 978-1-84-169610-2 .
Naturally Selected: The Evolutionary Science of Leadership . van Vugt, M., and A. Ahuja . 2011 . Harper Business , New York , NY . 272 pp. $25.99 (hardcover). ISBN 978-0-06-196383-4 .

We commonly think of leaders as strong personalities who imprint their will on compliant followers in search of a hero. Increasingly, however, this view of leader as hero is insufficient for today's more interdependent and volatile world. Two recently published books—The New Psychology of Leadership: Identity, Influence and Power by S. A. Haslam, S. D. Reicher, and M. J. Platow, and Naturally Selected: The Evolutionary Science of Leadership by M. van Vugt and A. Ahuja—explore the roots and limitations of the great-man theory of leadership. Both sets of authors make a strong case for a more reciprocal relationship between leaders and followers by presenting examples of leaders in the private, public, and social sectors whose unchecked influence resulted in disappointing or disastrous outcomes. They also cite the collective intuition of followers who will unite to thwart overreaching leaders. The books’ lessons are applicable to the world of conservation, where a leader's influence is tightly linked to their passion for, and progress toward achieving, the mission. Followers (if highly self-motivated professionals can be described as such) insist on more transparency and accountability from their leaders with a non-negotiable expectation of group engagement and empowerment.

Both books deflate the heroic-leader myth by outlining ingrained, prejudicial expectations of leadership. S. Haslam, S. Reicher, and M. Platow point to a pervasive psychology in which leaders are perceived as a race apart, blessed with special qualities that are lacking in other races. Arguing that most of the literature on leadership focuses on the individual attributes of the leader, this book instead focuses on the motivation of those who follow. Leadership is not just what leaders say and do; it is what leaders do in the context of their followers’ willingness to identify with a “we” and accept or reject what the leaders want them to do. Group identity and membership affect how people want to behave. Leadership is not about brute force, raw power, or creating incentives, which merely point to the failure of leadership and a default to coercion. More self-motivated constructive behavior and increased discretionary effort is prevalent when followers see a clear connection between behavior and achieving a mission. Effective leadership entails leaders and followers seeing themselves as part of the same team—preferably a highly competent team.

The structure of S. Haslam, S. Reicher, and M. Platow's argument is that leaders must be seen as an ingroup prototype, leaders’ actions must advance the interests of the ingroup, leaders must craft a sense of community, and leaders will help the group realize its goals in a manner consistent with its values. The authors conclude with a series of principles for an effective and successful leader and follower interaction.

In Naturally Selected, M. van Vugt and A. Ahuja attribute the mythology of heroic leadership to a deeply ingrained evolutionary psyche in which expectations of leaders and followers were shaped during prehistoric life on the savannah and carried forward to today. A template for leader and follower behaviors is so hardwired into the brain that any group of strangers will speedily arrange into led groups. Rather than studying iconic individual leaders to understand what makes them tick, Naturally Selected dissects the leader–follower dynamic through the disciplines of psychology, biology, neuroscience, economics, and anthropology. Evolutionary mind maps explain instinctual patterns of interaction between leader and follower, and behaviors we see in the workplace have roots in early days of human social interaction. The history of leadership can be tracked through the following stages: prehuman; band, clan, or tribe; chiefdom; and nation, state, and large business.

The authors highlight various behavioral patterns of individual leaders that seem perfectly sensible when placed in an evolutionary context. We admire tall politicians more than short ones. Because conflicts were addressed by intimidation, physical stature still matters in our first impressions of leaders. The spoils accrued by victorious leaders are reflected in contemporary leaders’ pursuit of salary, status, and sex as perks.

As with evolutionary-leader paradigms, there is a corresponding chronology of changes in followers’ expectations of their leaders as group needs evolved. The referent power of leaders could quickly be replaced by distrust from followers who would then proceed to act in ways, usually covert, to check the behavior of a dysfunctional leader.

The authors of Naturally Selected are clear that they do not condone the rational and instinctive leadership dysfunctions in both individual leaders and followers. Rather, they believe that becoming more aware of these unconscious expectations and instinctual beliefs is a first step to consciously changing them.

Using distinct frames of references, the authors of these two books advocate a more balanced, shared leadership paradigm by contrasting positive and negative leader and follower roles. One can also sketch a composite dynamic of leadership with excerpts drawn from these books. Naturally Selected highlights how dictatorial leaders historically capitalized on the unconscious longing for a more omniscient leader by taking steps to enhance their power base. Dictatorial leaders expand power through nepotism and corruption, curry favor by providing public goods efficiently and generously, instigate a monopoly on the use of force to curb public violence and maintain peace, exterminate political enemies, defeat a common enemy to manipulate the hearts and minds of followers, and create ideology to justify the leader's exalted position. Although intended to capture a historical model of unchecked leadership, these steps ring surprisingly familiar in contemporary narratives of failed leadership.

New Psychology makes the case that in the 21st century, where globalization, complexity, and uncertainty reign, distributed leadership works better than dictatorial leadership. A leader can engender a sustained base of followers by reflecting (getting to know followers intimately), by representing (forwarding proposals that embody group aspirations), and through realization (achieving group goals).

Still, even the most well-intended participative leader can cause followers to abdicate their responsibility for problem solving and sharing accountability for outcomes by being overly verbose and directive. Naturally Selected offers common strategies that groups have traditionally taken to keep an overly powerful leader in check: rumors about the leader, public discussion of issues, satire to highlight leader deficiencies, disobedience, and assassination. Again, variations of these actions are evident in current news profiles of teams that undermined or replaced their leader with visceral responses to the leader's shortcomings.

Both books acknowledge the dominance and self-reinforcing promulgation of the male leader archetype. A psychologically and instinctively rooted desire for the great-man leader helps explain why women are substantially fewer than 50% of chief executive officers, heads of state, and leaders of nongovernmental organizations. Despite the number of dedicated female conservation professionals, few hold executive roles. In a field such as conservation, where adaptation is a core principle and where one might expect to find greater egalitarianism between genders, it seems the primal prejudices still prevail.

One limitation of both books is that neither delves into the influence of the ecosystem in which leadership occurs. Both sets of authors articulate a model of leadership that requires the leader to turn toward the group and the context within which it operates. The leader and followers can become too internally focused on their own needs and dynamics. In doing so, they risk losing touch with external stakeholders and forces shaping their capacity to achieve their mission. The group becomes dysfunctional, not through the fault of the leader, but because of a shared blinding passion that creates a false self-perception of being masters of the universe.

The danger of a group-induced blinding passion serves as a note of caution to conservation organizations. Most people tether themselves to what the organization represents rather than who leads it. Leaders can be tolerated as long as the mission is being achieved. People may be willing to put up with an autocratic and driven leader as long as the followers feel they have the freedom and respect to pursue their professional aspirations. Many of these aspirations are deeply felt pursuits as ambitious as reducing climate change or inducing world peace to protect animals and plants, or Earth. The conservation ecosystem involves many collections of leaders and followers. It is a space defined more by collaborative networks than autocratic command and control hierarchies. Leadership will be based on reputation and respect. Power will come more from personal credibility and less from positional authority. The most successful leaders will have the empathy and self-awareness to mobilize a wide set of divergent follower groups. Followers will decide whether to pursue cynical steps to discredit an underperforming leader or whether to resort to more authentic and direct confrontations to influence the leader in ways that improve leadership and mutual accountability to achieve the organization's mission.

Although they have very different facts and tones, these books describe an evolution of leadership that explains the expectations we have for our leaders today. By becoming more aware of the unconscious psychology and instincts that frame our expectations of leaders, we can formulate a more inclusive definition of “leadership.” Rather than relying on a standard of leadership that no single individual can completely fulfill, great men and women can serve as both leaders and members of highly effective networks of leadership teams that adapt to social and external conditions in pursuit of their purpose.