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See Inside August/September 2007

The New Psychology of Leadership [Preview]

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.

Given that good leadership depends on constituent cooperation and support, this new psychology of leadership negates the notion that leadership is exclusively a top-down process. In fact, it suggests that to gain credibility among followers, leaders must try to position themselves among the group rather than above it. In his use of everyday language--such as "hunt down" and "those folks"--Bush portrayed himself on 9/11 as a typical American able to speak for America.

According to this new approach, no fixed set of personality traits can assure good leadership because the most desirable traits depend on the nature of the group being led. Leaders can even select the traits they want to project to followers. It is no accident, then, that Bush has often come across to Americans as a regular guy rather than as the scion of an elite East Coast Yale University dynasty.

But far from simply adopting a group's identity, influential presidents or chief executives who employ this approach work to shape that identity for their own ends. Thus, Bush helped to resolve the mass confusion on 9/11 in a way that promoted and helped to forge a new national unity. Among other things, people wondered: Who or what was the target? New York? Washington? Capitalism? The Western world? Bush's answer: America is under attack. By establishing this fact, he invoked a sense of a united nation that required his leadership.

From Charisma to Consensus
Nearly 100 years ago the renowned German political and social theorist Max Weber introduced the notion of "charismatic leadership" as an antidote to his grim prognosis for industrial society. Without such leadership, he forecast, "not summer's bloom lies ahead of us, but rather a polar night of icy darkness and hardness." Since then, the notion of charisma has endured, alternatively attracting and repelling us as a function of events in the world at large. In the chaos following World War I, many scholars continued to see strong leaders as saviors. But in the aftermath of fascism, Nazism and World War II, many turned against the notion that character determines the effectiveness of leaders.

Instead scholars began to favor "contingency models," which focus on the context in which leaders operate. Work in the 1960s and 1970s by the influential social psychologist Fred Fiedler of the University of Washington, for example, suggested that the secret of good leadership lies in discovering the "perfect match" between the individual and the leadership challenge he or she confronts. For every would-be leader, there is an optimal leadership context; for every leadership challenge, there is a perfect candidate. This idea has proved to be a big moneymaker; it underlies a multitude of best-selling business books and the tactics of corporate headhunters who promote themselves as matchmakers extraordinaire.

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