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  • Dr Andrew Frain

Leaders as entrepreneurs of identity

Updated: Nov 5, 2020

The social identity understanding of influence, and consequently leadership, is a practical one. In fact, in the last 10 years a practical perspective on the social identity approach to leadership has moved to centre stage. Here we have seen the development of a concerted discourse around ‘identity entrepreneurship’, which describes the act of consciously leveraging of social identity processes as a strategic tool toward social power.[1][2][3]

The three R’s are perhaps the clearest example of this, but we have also seen the development of survey tools for measuring the presence or absence of “identity leadership” behaviours,[4] as well as organizational level interventions designed to foster leadership across businesses or business units on the whole.[5]

With the increasing uptake of the social identity approach to leadership as a persuasive device, it is only natural that people will start to question the ethics of the approach. After all, identity entrepreneurship leverages cognitive processes that we for most part are not conscious of. Is identity entrepreneurship then just a new, and more effective, style of covert manipulation? And if so, is identity entrepreneurship immoral on the basis that it reduces others’ agency? Is it intrinsically exploitative?

These are not crazy questions, and they well worth answering. This is because a case can be made that identity entrepreneurship has the best ethical credentials of all the leadership approaches.

This case rests, as usual, on the self-categorization process.

We’ is a two way street.

Remember, identity entrepreneurship is at its heart a process of crafting a particular sense of ‘we’; a process of encouraging others to think of themselves not just as individuals, but as interchangeable members of a larger collective.

It is via these self-conceptions that an identity entrepreneur motivates people to seek consensus with other members of the psychological in-group. Or more specifically, motivates people to seek consensus with themselves as the person who best exemplifies what it is to be ‘us’.

There are, however, some possible side effects.

You see, in the course of crafting the social reality of ‘we’ for others, there is every chance that we will end up also creating that reality for ourselves. Emphasizing shared characteristics, fate, goals, or opinions, is simultaneously pathway to having others accept us into their sense of self and a pathway to accepting others into our own sense of self. In other words, acts of identity entrepreneurship come with the risk of buying into the same collective identities that we have created for others.

If this happens, and we do buy into those groups and social categories that we have created, then an obvious first side effect is that we now become susceptible to the influence attempts of our fellow ingroup members.

While we may start by instilling self-categories where we are central, self-categorization is fluid and responsive to contextual changes. Once attuned to the structure and content of the collective, we too can feel the pangs of uncertainty that come with shifting social landscapes and newfound dissensus. In short, identity entrepreneurship makes us primed to find leaders among our notional followers.

Far from reducing others’ agency then, under these circumstances identity entrepreneurship increases others’ agency by increasing the likelihood that a leader will listen to the opinions and ideas of their followers.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. As we have mentioned, self-categorization does not just underpin influence. Inclusive self-categorization, and the subsequent sense of our interchangeability with others, is the basis for sharing in others successes, as well as have concern with others pain. Said otherwise, it is a foundation of empathy, cooperation, and altruism.

As identity entrepreneurs these are desirable features to have in our followers (e.g. in an organizational setting they form the basis of ‘organizational citizenship’), but as fellow ingroup members ourselves these are things that we can expect to see germinating in us as well. Through identity entrepreneurship there is every chance that we will find ourselves to be the sincere champions of those whose hearts and minds we wish to win. Or put the other way, identity entrepreneurship can end up being an antidote to the callousness we might otherwise have toward our fellow group members.

We can’t get carried away though. The reality is that such warm and fuzzy outcomes are not always going to happen. It is still possible for an identity entrepreneur to maintain their sense of self as separate from the psychological ingroups that they successfully instill in others.

What identity entrepreneurship will always do, however, is beg the question ‘why would you?’

That is, why would you maintain the psychological separation? Why not also find your sense of self in the inclusive ingroup?

This is the core of it. The unique ethical feature of identity entrepreneurship is that it forces us to attend to the equivalence of having a sense of self as an individual and having a sense self as a group member.[6] In short, it questions for the primacy of the psychological individualism that motivates us to exploit others for personal gain in the first place.

Sound good? If you see merit and morality in having caring and compassion for others then it might just be reassuring enough for you to sleep soundly tonight.

Or have I frustrated you and ruined your day? Are you deeply unsettled by this talk of deriving our self-definition from group memberships and of placing value on collective, as opposed to individual, outcomes? Said otherwise, are you one of the individualists; those who insist on the reification of the individual as the only moral and empirical reality?

Unfortunately I don’t have time to also address the social identity implications for individualism more broadly just now. That will warrant more concerted attention and will have to wait until another post. An appropriate title might be ‘the Ethics of Followership’.

Another time though.

[1] Reicher, S., & Hopkins, N. (2001). Self and nation: Categorization, contestation and mobilization: Sage Publications Ltd.

[2] Reicher, S., Haslam, S. A., & Hopkins, N. (2005). Social identity and the dynamics of leadership: Leaders and followers as collaborative agents in the transformation of social reality. The Leadership Quarterly, 16(4), 547-568.

[3] Turner, J. C., Reynolds, K. J., & Subasic, E. (2008). Identity confers power: The new view of leadership in social psychology. Public Leadership, 57.

[4] Steffens, N. K., Haslam, S. A., Reicher, S. D., Platow, M. J., Fransen, K., Yang, J., … & Boen, F. (2014). Leadership as social identity management: Introducing the Identity Leadership Inventory (ILI) to assess and validate a four-dimensional model. Leadership Quarterly, In-press.

[5] Peters, K., Haslam, S. A., Ryan, M. K., & Steffens, N. K. (2014). To lead, ASPIRe. Towards Inclusive Organizations: Determinants of Successful Diversity Management at Work, 87.

[6] Turner, J. C. (1985). Social categorization and the self-concept: A social cognitive theory of group behavior. Advances in group processes: Theory and research, 2, 77-122.

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