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Leaders only inspire when we feel part of their group

Inspiring? James Alcock/AAP

When people talk about successful leaders they often focus on the personal and physical characteristics of those individuals. Great leaders are tall, good communicators, friendly, decisive, good looking, or have charisma.

However, according to the social identity theory of leadership, the focus should not be on the leaders themselves but on their followers. Successful leaders are only successful if they are perceived like this through the eyes of their followers. If nobody follows the leader, then there is no leadership.

According to this theory, effective leaders are those who can envision a group-oriented vision of the future that their followers can identify with. This is often achieved by (1) prioritising the role of followers as key elements of future collective success, (2) making personal sacrifices for the group, and (3) engaging in the rhetorical use of “we” and “us” to encourage followers to see themselves as implicated in the leader’s vision.

Examples of this are the inspirational slogans used in Barack Obama’s successful 2008 presidential campaign: “Change we can believe in” and “Yes we can”. These were intended to create an inspiring group-oriented vision of the future that American voters could identify with.

Non-effective leaders on the other hand, are characterised by self-interest, such that the leader focuses on his or her authority and personal role in achieving success. These types of leaders typically appear to be more self-aggrandising, aggressive, and arrogant, and are more inclined to use self-referencing that includes singular pronouns such as “I” and “me”.

In support of this theory, a recent study that analysed the Australian election speeches of prime ministerial candidates of the last 43 elections since 1901, found that political leaders who used the words “we” or “us” (rather than “I” or “me”) more than their opponent, won the election 80% of the time.

‘We’ doesn’t include everyone

So should leaders just use the words “we” and “us” as much as possible in their messages with followers and automatically they will be seen as inspirational? Well it is a bit more complicated than that. It turns out a follower has to identify with the group in order for an inspirational message to be seen as inspirational.

According to social identity theory, people strive to create a positive social identity via an “ingroup” that shares similar beliefs, nationality, likes and dislikes. People use their designated ingroup to compare themselves positively against competing “outgroups” that have differing attributes.

Therefore, if an inspirational message comes from a leader that is perceived as an outgroup leader, that message will not be processed in the same way as the same message being presented by an ingroup leader.

In a recent brain imaging study we found support for this view. Participants who were strong Labor or Liberal supporters were presented with inspirational and non-inspirational messages while undergoing functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI).

The inspirational messages were group-oriented messages in which we used words such as “we” and “us” (e.g. “For any one of us to succeed we must succeed as a nation united”), while the non-inspirational messages were leader-oriented messages in which we used words such as “I” and “me” (e.g. “If my government is to achieve anything I must play a central role”).

We told participants that the messages were made by either Labor or Liberal leaders and they had to rate how inspirational they found the messages. Unbeknown to participants, identical messages were presented as coming from Labor and Liberal leaders across participants. In theory, if objective, participants would rate the messages as equally inspirational, regardless of whether they came from an ingroup or outgroup leader.

The behavioural results showed this was not the case and there was a strong ingroup bias. For example, a Labor supporter rated messages as much more inspirational if he or she believed they were made by a Labor leader. The same was true for Liberal supporters. Interestingly the brain imaging results provided some key insights in explaining why this was the case.

We compared the brain activation in followers watching inspirational messages from the ingroup leader versus non-inspirational messages from the ingroup leader. For ingroup leader messages we found more activation in brain areas involved in processing information such as the inferior parietal lobule, bilateral pars opercularis and posterior midcingulate gyrus (Figure A).

However, when looking at the same comparison (inspirational minus non-inspirational) for messages from out-group leaders, no increase in brain activation was seen in these areas (Figure B).

Author provided

This is a striking result because remember that the messages were identical for ingroup and outgroup leaders. The inspirational messages from outgroup leaders were ignored (as evidenced by the lack of increase in brain activation), while if people believed the inspirational messages came from an ingroup leader they were processing them much more than the non-inspirational messages.

Interestingly, the same areas as in Figure A were more active for non-inspirational messages from outgroup leaders. This tells us that participants were focusing more on inspirational messages from ingroup leaders and non-inspirational messages from out-group leaders.

These results provide strong support for the social identity theory of leadership. Through subjective processing of identical information, participants made sure that their group was seen in a better light than the competing outgroup.

The key message for aspirational leaders is this. If you want to make sure that your inspirational messages don’t fall on deaf ears, make sure that you a) create a vision and group identity that your followers can identify with so that you will be seen as an ingroup leader and b) focus on creating the best outcome for the whole group rather than just the best outcome for yourself.

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