By Andrew Frain
We have started making claims that the social identity approach provides answers to common leadership questions and that these insights can be leveraged to strengthen leadership credentials. We will continue to make this case in this blog, but some of you are probably wondering why we are being so indirect. In other words, where are the ‘dos’ of social identity leadership?
This is reasonable, and those of you coming from a corporate background will be particularly justified in having this expectation. You will have had years of exposure to leadership checklists, flowcharts, and matrices; all of which suggesting quite specific things for an aspiring leader to do.
So where is ours? The issue is that the social identity approach doesn’t readily lend itself to depictions of that kind. Frankly, that’s because the social identity approach actually depicts the complex reality of leadership, rather than just a simplistic caricature. That is, although the psychological process remains the same, what leadership looks like across contexts will vary massively. Leadership’s form is heavily contingent on the individuals, groups, and cultures involved. This should be intuitive for those who are up to date on our posts. Because leadership is an outcome of shared psychological group membership, and the leader is someone who exemplifies the psychological group, the nature and characteristics of that group is going to be critical. It is in this way that the social identity approach captures both the consistency of leadership and the variability of leadership. The social identity approach, unlike most other leadership theories, is able to reconcile the vast dissimilarities between the likes of Ghandi, Churchill, and Jagger, with their shared status as leaders.
To be central to the ingroup you have to know what defines the ingroup. So no, there is no straight forward leadership checklist, or five step leadership flowchart, or two dimensional leadership matrix. These things are just as likely to inhibit leadership as develop it.
Having said all that, there are the three ‘R’s. A couple of years ago social identity theorists Alex Haslam, Stephen Reicher and Michael Platow, articulated three general activities for those looking to develop leadership credentials: reflecting, representing, and realizing. These are three broad actions that an aspiring leader should keep in mind as they attempt to wield influence.
Reflecting Reflecting is to spend time getting to know the social identities and social identity environment of those they wish to lead. What are the groups and categories that people identify with? What are the comparison outgroups? What are the norms and characteristics of those groups, and what are the relationships between them?
Representing Representing is to position oneself as central to an ingroup as identified during reflecting. Here a prospective leader shapes their behaviour, beliefs and language such that they epitomize what it is to be a member of that psychological group. They must abide by ingroup norms and expectations, including those pertaining to group goals and ambitions. That is, goal setting and achievement must be in line with the group’s normative expectations.
Realizing Realizing is to make the psychological group a reality. In other words, while representing is about positioning the potential leader within the group, realizing is about positioning the group within the wider environment. It is about making group goals and ambitions a reality, and about setting structures in place that make the psychological group is a reflection of the ‘real world’.
Halsam, Reicher, and Platow’s three ‘R’s in their notional sequence. We won’t go into further details on the three ‘R’s right now, but rest assured that we will explore them further in future posts. The aim of today’s post was to introduce the three ‘R’s and to start the conversation about leadership in practice.
Actually, as part of that conversation, are we being hypocrites? What we have above looks a lot like a three item checklist. And it looks a hell of a lot like a flow chart. Didn’t we just sneer at such things?
We think we are on solid ground for a couple of reasons. First, the three ‘R’s describe general actions to be taken in pursuit of leadership. They do not describe particular characteristics that leaders should have, nor do they make specific suggestions about how leaders should interact with others. As we said earlier, such advice will be helpful only at chance levels. Really, the three ‘R’s aren’t leadership actions in the traditional sense. They instead represent a pathway to determining what leadership actions are appropriate in context.
Second, the three ‘R’s are not a centrepiece. They are a small part of a much larger theoretical and practical picture of leadership (Haslam, Reicher and Platow give them just 10 pages out of 220). They can be thought of as cues, prompting people to understand and attend to the social identity processes that will determine their leadership capability. After all, what is a “social identity” anyway? The three ‘R’s necessitate social identity comprehension.
This is perhaps the real value of the three ‘R’s; they lead people to back to the theory that they came from. It is via the theory, not the three ‘R’s, that we are able to see leadership for what it is, see where others are getting it wrong, and identify opportunities to develop our own leadership capacity.
We are quietly confident you will come to agree. And not because we think so much of ourselves and our rhetoric. We are confident that you will come to agree because as you get across these social identity ideas you will see them in action everywhere, including when it comes to leadership.
It is now a cliché, but Kurt Lewin’s “there is nothing more practical than a good theory” is the right adage here, and the social identity approach is excellent theory.  Haslam, S. A., Reicher, S., & Platow, M. J. (2011). The new psychology of leadership: Psychology Press.  Lewin, K. (1951). Field theory in social science: Selected theoretical papers by Kurt Lewin. London: Tavistock. p. 169.