The secrets of leadership

Monday 20 August 2007

New research has found that leaders are most effective when they transform themselves into `one of us’.

The study by the University of St Andrews shatters the stereotype that `good’ leaders must have a specific set of qualities. Instead, it shows that leaders must embody the qualities and opinions of the group they seek to influence, even down to personal appearance.

The research, published this week as the cover story of the journal Scientific American Mind, found that the best leaders work by shaping themselves to fit the group, before shaping the group itself to fit with their policies and proposals.

Professor Steve Reicher, a social psychologist at St Andrews, collaborated with fellow experts Professor Alex Haslam at the University of Exeter and Mike Platow at the Australian National University.

He said, “In the past, leadership scholars considered charisma, intelligence and other personality traits to be the key to effective leadership, which suggests that good leaders can dominate followers by sheer force of will.

“In recent years, however, a new picture has emerged. Effective leaders – whether bosses, community leaders or heads of state – must work to understand the values and opinions of their followers before trying to mould them accordingly.”

The researchers believe that by symbolising `who we are’, leaders are in a position to shape `what we want’ and `what we should do’.

Professor Haslam identified a key technique of leadership.  He said, “Leaders try to transform themselves so that their personal biography and even their personal appearance come to be symbolic of the group as a whole. Just look at how Margaret Thatcher altered her dress, her hair, her voice so as to resemble Britannia. Or the way in which George Bush, in his jeans, leather jackets and cowboy boots, tries to come across as an American everyman. Even his gaffes make him appear like a regular guy.”

Another technique used by such leaders involves them describing their policies so that they seem to embody values that are rooted in their group’s history.   Professor Reicher explained, “In Scotland, Labour politicians will represent public spending as Burns’ egalitarian idea of `A man’s a man for a’ that’; Tory politicians will represent spending cuts as Andrew Carnegie reincarnated; SNP politicians will represent independence as a new Bannockburn. All of them claim equally to represent Scotland, but present very different ideas of Scottishness.”

He concluded, “Effective leadership is about telling us what to do by telling us who we are. Democratic leadership is not about dominating people, it is about inviting everyone into a dialogue about our shared values and priorities.”

The research paper, The New Psychology of Leadership, by Stephen D Reicher, S. Alexander Haslam (Exeter) and Michael J. Platow (ANU) is the cover story of the current edition of Scientific American Mind. The full article can be accessed online at:





PROFESSOR REICHER IS AVAILABLE FOR INTERVIEW ON 01334 463057, email [email protected]



PROFESSOR HASLAM CAN BE CONTACTED ON 01392 264618, email [email protected]




Issued by Press Office, University of St Andrews
Contact Gayle Cook, Press Officer on 01334 467227 / 462529, mobile 07900 050 103, or email [email protected]
Ref:  Leadership 170807
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