‘The Vision Thing’

A critical question, therefore, is under what conditions will a leader’s vision and behavior be translated into emotional, intellectual and material commitment from followers? Under what circumstances are followers willing to exert effort in order to ensure that a leader’s aspirations are realized? Evidence from a range of studies we have conducted shows that it is only when a leader has a history of standing up for the group and its members that the group in turn is prepared to stand up for them and do the worknecessary for their vision to be realized. 

For example, Haslam and Platow (2001b) found that students only generated arguments and ideas that backed up a leader’s plans for improving their campus, if that leader had a record of making decisions that supported positions that were normative for the group (e.g., opposing government cuts). This is one reason why party followers scrutinize Senate voting records so closely when deciding who to back (and work for) through the Presidential nomination process. By the same token, candidates routinely point to their rivals’ voting records in order to strategically undermine their support base. 

This same point also emerges from the carefully observed ethnographic field studies of Clifford Stott and John Drury (2000). These examine the evolution of riots during public events (e.g., protest rallies, soccer tournaments) and show that individuals who seek to engage in conflict with police only assume a position of leadership (whereby they are able to influence others to participate in violent acts) once relations between police and those they are policing (e.g., protestors, football fans) have become antagonistic and violence is seen to define an appropriate response to the intergroup situation at hand. Critically too, at apractical level, it is the leader’s possession of particular skills that the group needs in these contexts (e.g., to resist, to fight) that make others turn to them. However, in the absence of such dynamics, those who promote violence are typically dismissed as dangerous thugs and rarely gain influence. Moreover, it is worth noting that sensitivity to such dynamics on the part of police in Europe has played a major role in reducing the incidence of major disturbances at public events in recent years. Indeed, this line of research gives powerful testimony to the practical advantages of a theory that accounts for the ongoing interplay between leadership and group dynamics (see Stott et al., 2007).

Conclusion: Social identity creates effective vision and charisma

As a great many other researchers have noted, notions of vision and charisma are central to leadership. It is a simple truth that leaders will have a greater capacity to influence followers if they articulate a clear vision and are charismatic. Critically, though, we argue that these aspects of leadership are not ‘givens’ that successful leaders bring with them to the leadership situation and then unload on followers who can do little other than lap them up adoringly. 

Instead, a major point that emerges from our work is that the vision and charisma of leaders and the emergence of their leadership is bound up with the group context which gives these things meaning. The argument is not simply that the suitability of particular individuals for offices of leadership changes as a function of their circumstances (as contingency theories propose). Rather it is that leaders and followers are transformed and energized as partners in an emerging identity-based relationship. For this reason, we suggest that models of leadership and charisma which are founded solely upon an appreciation of the psychology of individuals in their individuality — as most are — are necessarily limited. 

As an illustration of these points, it is instructive to conclude by reflecting on the work of the eminent theologian Philip Esler pertaining to the question of Paul’s leadership of the Romans. Paul, it will be recalled, was the Pharisee who took an active part in the persecution of Christians but then had a vision that led him to convert to Christianity and enjoin multitudes of others to do likewise through the power and clarity of his teaching. This was a radical, dangerous course (putting it mildly) but, of course, it came to exert a massive impact on world history that has affected all our lives. As a result, Paul was canonized and is now celebrated (at least by Christians) as a charismatic leader par excellence

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