Identity Leadership: The New Psychology of Leadership

Identity Leadership: The New Psychology of Leadership

I am going to tell you a lie about leadership, one which we have too willingly swallowed for far too long, that is, leaders are special people who have traits that can be copied and that these copyable traits are possessed by some and lacked by others. Entrapped in this lie, we believe that leadership is a noun, something that people "ARE," rather than a verb, something that people "DO".


Built on this lie, thousands of books have been published telling us, leaders have x, y and z traits, and if you want to become a leader, these are the traits you must possess. Some books tell us that the most important trait to be a leader is emotional intelligence, while others say it is courage, and others still say it is confidence. However, in this article, I would like to introduce the new psychology of leadership and build on the idea that leadership is a verb, "something that leaders DO" rather than something that leaders "ARE." This new psychology of leadership is known as Identity Leadership”.


Identity leadership is built on three simple principles the first of which is - leadership is not something a single person can do ALONE. This is because it requires the involvement of others and, therefore, inherently includes individuals (the team) BEYOND the leader. For example, Mahatma Gandhi - the father of our nation - is often referred to as the one who got us - Indians - independence. However, could he have done this alone? I think the answer to this question is a resounding NO. Those who followed Gandhi in the fight for independence were also key players in the Indian independence movement. They were ultimately responsible for translating Gandhi's vision into social action, namely the fight for independence. Thus, Gandhi's leadership included individuals other than himself.


This example leads us to the second principle of identity leadership: leadership is never just about "ME" or "I" (the leader) but rather about "US" or "WE" (the leader + the follower). That is, if Gandhi's followers had not been loyal and diligent, there would have been no leadership to speak of, no book on Gandhi's life to write. And that is one of the most fundamental errors that most books on leadership make. They tell us only about the leader, his/her/their characteristics, and life while concealing the critical players in the leadership equation, namely the followers. This principle of identity leadership was beautifully summed up in a quote by Peter Drucker, who wrote, "Leaders who are most effective, it seems to me, never say "I." And that's not because they have trained themselves not to say "I." They don't think "I." They think ''we''; they think ''team''.


The third principle of identity leadership is that leadership is not about having power "over" people but rather about having power "through" people. Leaders should be able to motivate their team members to do something because they "want to" rather than because they feel they "have to". Meaning that effective leadership is NOT about keeping an eye on your team members to get them to do your bidding. Instead, effective leadership is when your team is willing to go above and beyond for you and your cause when you are unavailable or absent. Therefore, I challenge you to abandon any notion of leadership as a process of power over people, coercion or resource management. Instead, think of leadership as a process of influence.


Now that I have provided you with a framework of the new psychology of leadership - let's discuss the four dimensions all effective identity leaders have in common: 


  1. Effective leaders should be "PROTOTYPICAL" members of the team they lead.


Let us illustrate this with a quote by Theodore Roosevelt, who said, "I am, if I am anything, an American. I am an American from the crown of my head to the soles of my feet." By saying this, Roosevelt made it abundantly clear to his team members (other Americans) that he is, first and foremost, an American who is part of the "American team" and shares similar values with other "Americans." The point I'm making here is that effective leaders should be viewed as integral members of the team they lead. They must exemplify the team's values (e.g., diligence, bravery etc.), and they must be a - prototypical - team member before they are a leader.


  1. Effective leaders should "ADVANCE" the interests of the team they lead. 


This second dimension of identity leadership emphasises the importance of leaders acting in their team's best interests rather than their own best interests. Indeed, one of the detrimental factors to leadership effectiveness is the perception that the leader is acting solely for their own benefit. That may explain why would-be leaders must always be viewed as reluctant candidates, not seeking power for themselves but being enticed by their team to accept the responsibilities of the office. In fact, when leaders are viewed by their team members as promoting their own agenda, the leader's perceived charisma evaporates into thin air. Here, let us take the example of Tony Blair, who was cheered to the echo when he left the commons chamber for the last time as the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom (in 2007). However, after ten years of adoration, his popularity waned as the tragedy of Iraq ensnared him so completely that the old Blair magic evaporated. Tony Blair appears to have acted in his own self-interest rather than the interests of his people - the British people, which resulted in his downfall.


  1. Effective leaders should be "ENTREPRENEURS" of their team's values.


Effective leaders must craft a sense of what it means to be a part of the team. This does not mean imposing the leader's personal values on the team, but instead discussing collectively (a) what the team wishes to stand for (e.g., anti-racism), (b) what the team's values are (e.g., equality), (c) what the team's values are not (e.g., spreading hatred) and (d) how the values of the team differ from those of other teams (e.g., we are more open than team X). This could also include questions about what the team wants to aspire towards (i.e., being a team that always arrives on time).


The England national football team coach is an example of a leader who is an effective identity entrepreneur. In his letter, titled 'Dear England,' Gareth Southgate outlined the values of the English football team and what it means to be a part of it. These values are implicit in his words: "This is a special group. Humble, proud and liberated in being their true selves."


  1. Effective leaders should be "IMPRESARIOS" of their team's values.


Once the leader and their team members have a clear understanding of their team's values, the leader should organise ritualised, performances, celebrations, commemorations, festivals, rallies - in which the team is encouraged to act out their team values (i.e., their collective identity).


The Haka dance performed by New Zealand’s rugby team prior to each international game is an example of a ritualised performance of the team’s collective identity led by the team’s captain (i.e., the identity impresario). The identity being displayed through this dance is unity, pride and strength. You can watch this dance here:


In a nutshell, effective leaders represent (being one of "us"), advance (doing it for "us"), create (crafting a sense of "us") and embed (embedding a sense of "us") a sense of collective identity amongst their team members. This form of leadership has been found to be effective in organisations worldwide. Therefore, let us acknowledge the lie of leadership and understand that - leadership is not a noun, something that people "ARE." Instead, leadership is a verb - something that people "DO," and this "DOING" involves "managing a team's collective identity."


By Radhika Butalia

Psychologist and Researcher




  1. The New Psychology of Leadership: Identity, Influence and Power by S. Alexander Haslam, Stephen D. Reicher & Michael J. Platow
  2. Rethinking the Psychology of Leadership: From Personal Identity to Social Identity by S. Alexander Haslam & Stephen D. Reicher
  3. The new psychology of leadership: Why and how leaders need to care about group identity -
  4. To Boldly Go: Leadership, Strategy, and Conflict in the 21st Century and Beyond by Jonathon Klug, Steven Leonard and Major General Nick Ryan