Council Post: Prototypical Vs. Unique Leadership

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Who is a great leader: the one who looks for harmonic collaboration, or the one who assertively pushes through with their agenda?

We live in a world that is torn between two poles. We strive for work cultures in which everyone feels fulfilled and happy with their environment. Empathy and compassion aren’t limited to the end of the working day. Some of the big players like Ikea are successfully “navigating global crises with mindfulness and humanity,” just as diversity and inclusion have become indispensable conditions of modern corporations that people want to join — and stay with. 

But at the same time, we reward strength and heroism. We look up to people who stand out. When we think of great leadership, the most dominant attributes often seem to be the most successful ones. 

For example, Klofstad et al. found that “people with lower voices may have an edge in elections for positions of leadership,” but at the same time, they pose the question of whether they “actually make better leaders.”

The impressive effect of dominant attributes seems only natural and makes it all too hard to forget what the “great man” theory of leadership set out to explain back in the 19th century. Most people back then were convinced that real change and outstanding success that lasts through the ages depend on the few great men who are born with inspiring attributes. These are the ones capable of changing the course of history. 

But even at that time, there were scientists who understood the complex relationship between leaders’ attributes and their surroundings, which together influence their success. As sociologist Herbert Spencer put it, “The genesis of a great man depends on the long series of complex influences which has produced the race in which he appears, and the social state into which that race has slowly grown. … Before he can remake his society, his society must make him.”

Now, one might ask what racial factors have to do with a leader’s success, and indeed, as Yuval Noah Harari puts it in his 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, racial factors have been proven “negligible” in the scientific discourse as cultural differences have stepped into their place. 

Moreover, nowadays most people wouldn’t limit the course of history to the emergence of great men: Many female leaders, such as Jacinda Ardern or Angela Merkel, have undeniably proven their impact on society.

Nevertheless, what Spencer set out to show in 1874 is reflected in today’s scientific leadership discourse. The “great man” theory has made space for situational approaches to leadership. There might not only be one valid path to lead, but rather a multitude of options. And the leader’s success is always dependent on the values and traits of the group the leader interacts with.

Now the question arises: Is there any general tendency a leader should move toward when they recognize their group to show certain traits?

According to Rast et al. in 2012, “Research confirms that group members support group prototypical leaders more strongly than nonprototypical leaders.” The more a leader is able to reflect the fears, norms and wishes of the group they lead, the more likely this group will follow. From the employees’ perspective, this means that the more they can see parts of themselves in their leader, the more likely they are to put their trust in them.

As renowned group psychologist Wilfred Bion explained in 1948, it is tempting for an immature group to put all their hopes and trust into the hands of a seemingly almighty leader who can be trusted no matter what. History has shown how dangerous the results of this thinking can be. 

Many people have a natural tendency to blindly trust a charismatic leader, which is why an ethically sound leader stands in front of a dilemma: Stay with the fear, wishes and norms of the group, and manifest an unshakable following but potentially lose control of the direction everyone moves toward. Or have a clear direction set and steer the group toward it, even if it means that trust has to grow organically until it flourishes.

In uncertain times like these, it seems only natural that, as leaders, we want to reflect assertiveness and make sure that we do not lose the trust of our teams. 

But maybe it is worth taking the chance, if you truly know where you want to go.

If you’re currently playing with the thought of taking a chance, at least science has found that there is “a significant increase in support for the non-prototypical leader” in uncertain times.

Maybe right now is the best time of all to uniquely reinvent yourself.

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