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Social identity theory of leadership

Social identity theory of leadership in context

Some ideas about leadership suggest that leaders are born with certain characteristics: the great men
theory, in which the leader is fundamentally different from those who are led: perhaps he or she has
inherent and rare personal charisma or power. According to this way of thinking, the rest of us cannot be
leaders, but we can learn from their example.

Other ideas about leadership are based on the assumption that leaders have certain skills. Perhaps they
have learned how to influence others through training and practice.

Of course there is an element of truth in both of these ways of thinking about leadership. But the social
identity theory of leadership focuses on an aspect that is missing from these traditions: the way in which our
identities are strongly influenced by our social setting, and in turn influence our ability to work with others. If
we feel connected with others through a shared identity, shared norms and beliefs, we can work with them;
we have a shared investment in the work we do that means we put the effort into dealing with problems
and disagreements.

Key elements of the social identity theory of leadership

The theory proposes that leadership arises out of, and is exercised through, social relationships. Leaders are
not imposed on those they lead; they are effective because they both embody and influence the
relationships of which they form a part and the shared identities, norms and beliefs that underpin the
relationships. Formal leadership roles are important, but leaders who do not pay attention to the social
setting are less likely than those who do to be accepted and therefore effective. In Haslams words, the
leaders role is about shaping social identities so that the leader and his or her proposals are seen as the
concrete manifestation of group beliefs and values. (Haslam 2011)

Social identity theory proposes that the leaders role is related to the group they lead:
Being one of us enacting us
Doing it for us acting and modeling fairness and group interest
Crafting a sense of us being entrepreneurs of identity
Making us matter identity management, purpose and power in the wider context

One significance of social identity theory for leadership is that it matters what followers think of the leader,
who must therefore work to understand and meet the needs of the followers. This can cause tensions in the
role, as illustrated in the image overleaf.
Figure 1: the paradox of social identity in leadership
Leadership is a Leaders:
bestowed attribute Reflect
it can be given and Represent
can be taken away Realise

Shared Lack of
As one of identity Leader gets Rewards social
us leader increases the credit and ego identity
builds sense followership and reward undermine reduces
of social and for group one of us followership
identity enhances success perception and group
leader success


In professional and academic careers, self-leadership the ability to decide on ones own direction and run
ones own affairs - is often given a high priority.

So the extent to which I require leading is, you know, very minimal. What I need is people that
organise systems so that I could fit into them
Male professor quoted in Bolden (2012)

Autonomy. I love how autonomous I can be....on the whole, as long as what I teach in the
classroom meets the objectives, I can do it my way...
Female principal lecturer quoted in Bolden (2012)

Social identity leadership theory in higher education settings

In academic settings, social identity theory has been used to analyse what academics want from their
leaders. According to a recent study (Bolden, 2012) three key actions comprise academic leadership.

The first providing a holding space is about protecting autonomy and self-leadership. The leader creates
a protected space in which individuals and groups can do their academic work, protecting them from
organisational rain.

The second working for and with the group - is about being one of us and doing it for us. It is about
being a role model, expressing what it means to be in this group and what the groups work involves, and
can only be carried out by someone with whom the group feels some affinity.
The third boundary-spanning on behalf of the group is about crafting a sense of us, and making us
matter. It is about translating the norms and beliefs of other groups into language that this group can
understand, and representing this groups norms and beliefs to others. In doing so the leader helps the
group to understand its role in the wider context more clearly.

Figure 2: academic leadership, according to academics

work for and

with the
group accomplish
provide a holding
boundary spanning
space that enables
on behalf of
productive academic
individuals and
leadership in
actions that:

Questions for Reflection

Who has been influential for you during your career in higher education? To what extent would you
describe them as leaders?
What aspects of your own social identity feel (to you) to be similar to others around you? In what
ways do you feel different?
How much do you feel that the formal leaders in your workplace express or embody your own sense
of identity?

Key readings

Bolden, R., Gosling, J., OBrien, A., Peters, K., Ryan, M., Haslam, A. (2012) Academic Leadership: changing
conceptions, identities and experiences in UK higher education. Leadership Foundation for Higher Education

Goffee, R. and Jones, G. (2009) Clever: Leading Your Smartest, Most Creative People. Cambridge, Mass:
Harvard Business Press

Haslam, A., Reicher, S. D. and Platow, M. J. (2011) The New Psychology of Leadership: identity, influence
and power. New York: Psychology Press

Written by Rebecca Nestor for the Leadership Foundations Aurora, 2013