The New Psychology of Leadership

“Even the way leaders dress can help them appear representative of the groups they lead. Bush’s leather jackets and cowboy clothes round out the image of him as a regular guy. In the same vein, the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat adopted the headscarf of the peasantry to identify himself with his people. The founder of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, wore a dress made of distinctive items from the various regions of the new country, suggesting a newly unified national identity and establishing himself as its figurehead.

Such examples counter the notion that leadership requires a particular set of personality traits or that leaders should behave in a fixed way. The most desirable traits and actions have to fit with the culture of the group being led and thus vary from group to group. Even some of the most oft-touted leadership traits, such as intelligence, can be called into question in some settings. Some people consider being down-to-earth or trustworthy as more important than being brilliant, for instance. Where this is the case, being seen as too clever may actually undermine one’s credibility as a leader, as Bush’s tactics suggest.

Followers may also shun an otherwise desirable trait such as intelligence if doing so helps the group differentiate itself from competitors. In a study published in 2000 by Turner, now at the Australian National University, and one of us (Haslam), we asked business students to choose the ideal characteristics for a business leader. When the students were confronted with a rival group that had an intelligent leader (who was also inconsiderate and uncommitted), the students wanted their leader to be unintelligent (but considerate and dedicated). But when the rival leader was unintelligent, virtually nobody wanted an unintelligent leader”…. <More>

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