Menu Close

Post-truth leaders are all about their followers

We have been told we now live in a post-truth era. The author and academic Ralph Keyes has described it as a time when we do not have just lies and truths, but also “statements that may not be true but we consider too benign to call false”. The idea has gained so much currency over the course of the US election and the Brexit referendum in the UK that the Oxford Dictionaries named it as its word of the year for 2016. It has been argued that outcomes of both have been heavily influenced by people’s subjective emotions and beliefs, rather than by objective facts.

These dramatic historical events are modifying the way in which we collectively make sense of politics, society and also of leadership. We know that effective leaders are able to adapt their style to different contexts. In the post-truth context we are witnessing the rise of a new one. Here we can see leaders who display the capacity to craft a reality which is neither meant to be truth or lie, but is mostly meant to be appealing to the emotions and beliefs of some parts of society. There are three important ways in which this is being done.

1. Socialised charisma

A post-truth leader knows that charisma is a social phenomenon. We think that charisma is innate in people; some people have it, others don’t. Yet charisma is a “socialised” phenomenon – it depends on the people who observe the leaders: his or her followers. That doesn’t mean that leader’s attributes are not important, but it acknowledges that followers play a more active role than we might think. They do so by empowering the leader, by showing approval for his or her behaviour.

On your side. Francis Toms/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

Followers ultimately legitimate their leader to act in a certain way. How does this happen? Followers have been generally found to be more supportive of people who belong to their social group and to people that reflect a comforting and familiar idea of the world and their role within it. Endorsing these leaders makes a follower feel more secure and more confident that their group status and interests will be protected. In other words followers use their own group “leadership prototype”, as an evaluation mechanism, recognising as charismatic those leaders that match those prototypes.

In this sense charisma is the result of a wide exercise of group think, where a particular part of society (or of an organisation) endorses a leader not because his or her ideas are true or false, but simply because they are good for their group. Post-truth leaders know this very well. They regulate their speeches and actions to match these charismatic prototypes, reinforcing their socialised charisma in doing so.

2. Social media savvy

Those who adopt this style are savvy users of media to stir followers’ feelings and test their responses. They shape their message by floating an idea, looking at the response (on Twitter, Facebook, etc), adjusting if necessary and then feeding their followers more of it. Eventually an idea, which started as a post truth falsehood or exaggeration, becomes a group-specific truth accepted by – and only by – the followers of that leader. You can see this in the bubbles of “fake news” amplified in Facebook “echo chambers”.

Post-truth leaders have nailed the concept that followers play a crucial role in making a leader legitimate, by idealising and glamorising certain individuals over others. In the situation of post-truth leadership, the role played by followers in “making” the leader is almost tangible, epitomising what scholars have been describing for more than 30 years as the romance of leadership.

Farming for approval. misspixels/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

3. Selective authenticity

Those who adopt a post-truth leadership style have understood that the virtue of a leader is in the eye of the beholder. Their aim is not to look authentic to all, but only to that pool of followers instrumental to their rise to power. When we think of authenticity we think about an individual who is displaying their “true” inner emotions. Post-truth leaders display emotions, although these need be neither true or false, but are intended to stir their followers their way.

How do they do it? Scholars have found that some form of leaders’ acting can be read by followers as authentic, this has been defined as “deep acting”. These leaders make an effort to modify their inner feelings to match the emotional state of their followers, engaging in a subtle form of self-deception. Leaders engaging in deep acting can look and feel authentic – especially to those followers whose emotional state they are targeting.

One conclusion to draw here is that post-truth leadership is an affair which has very much to do with what you might call “followership”, rather than leadership. However, we know very little about this idea, and how people decide to follow others. The Oxford Dictionary defines leadership as “[t]he action of leading a group of people or an organisation, or the ability to do this”; while “followership” has so far failed to gain the traction needed to warrant any entry at all. A simple search in Amazon books with the world “leadership” generates 190,000 titles the same search with the word “followership” generates 171.

This failure to properly establish followership as a tangible concept is what helped catch out pollsters in the US election. The journalist Maria Chalabi agrees that it’s our lack of capacity to listen properly to followers’ (or voters’) opinions that caused the misguided polls. Focusing on followers, their emotions and opinions is messy business; analysing their aggregate psychological processes, is complicated.

We are so mesmerised by the idea of heroic leaders, visionary charismatic people who can change our world, that we forget that it us – the followers – that validate and create that charisma through our emotional responses. The post-truth leadership style on any side of a political divide, magnifies the fact that it is followers – their actions, beliefs and emotions – that determine the selection of a leader, their election to power and the sustained endorsement of them. Post-truth leaders have understood and used – perhaps also abused – this mechanism. It all means that the study of followership and the psychology of followers are more and more important to understand the process of leadership than ever.

Want to write?

Write an article and join a growing community of more than 174,600 academics and researchers from 4,807 institutions.

Register now