‘Greed is good.’ ‘Coffee’s for closers.’ ‘Life’s a game of inches.’ Let’s be honest, if you base your style of management solely on the ultra-macho catch phrases of iconic Hollywood characters you’ll likely be fired before you can say ‘show me the money’. Contrary to what you might imagine, it’s not just the natural leader who thrives in management – often the less gregarious can flourish just as much. But how do you project leadership and succeed in management when your own personality isn’t so dynamic? And conversely, can you be too ‘alpha’?
To get the answers, RISING spoke with Alex Haslam, author of The New Psychology of Leadership, professor of social and organisational psychology and Australian Laureate Fellow at the University of Queensland.
RISING First off, do alpha males and super-strong characters automatically make good leaders?
ALEX HASLAM ‘Being an alpha male can work in some contexts, but it is a big mistake to imagine this as a generalised recipe for success. If you are really interested in shaping groups and outcomes, there are a range of contexts in which other forms of leadership – in particular, ‘quiet leadership’, ‘inclusive leadership’ and ‘servant leadership’ — will be much more effective. So, if you can’t adapt your style to meet these demands, you will run into difficulty sooner or later.’
‘It helps people understand that you don’t see leadership as being “all about me” — which it isn’t’
RISING OK, what sorts of benefits can we get from 'quiet leadership'?
AH ‘It helps people understand that you don’t see leadership as being “all about me” — which it isn’t.’
RISING Is there something to be said for a leader spending less time at post-work drinks, or ducking out early from a staff party?
AH ‘The more time you spend with the groups you want to lead the better — not least because understanding those groups is critical for your success. At the same time, imposing yourself too much can be a problem under some circumstances. The key is to be sensitive to the perspective of others.’
RISING Could buying a round of drinks for people you were once on the same level as, but now lead, be seen as a desperate effort to be liked?
AH ‘Interpretation is everything, but buying the drinks could be viewed as authentic care, and it could also be seen as manipulative and forced. The latter is much more likely to happen if you are seen to be an outsider – someone who isn’t “one of us”.’
RISING For bosses who have worked alongside the people they now manage, should they try and still be matey?
AH ‘It can create issues certainly, because your relationship with team-mates in the past has involved a particular understanding of identity relations, and these relations are often changed when people assume leadership roles. How people handle these changing relations is itself a mark of their leadership ability. Some people do it well, others appallingly.’
‘Sometimes it can be a good idea to protect other group members by taking the blame for their mistakes’
RISING Is it healthy to admit culpability when you get something wrong?
AH ‘If you never admit to mistakes you are unlikely to be seen as someone who is “one of us”. Sometimes it can be a good idea to protect other group members by taking the blame for their mistakes. Don’t overdo this, but owning a group’s shortcomings is a good way to show others that are identified with the group — and this is important for your capacity to lead it.’
RISING People get pigeonholed in business as good at ‘this’ but not at ‘that’ – is it possible to project leadership in areas you’re not normally know for?
AH ‘Different people do have different skills, and group members generally understand this. Don’t try to be something you’re not, as this will undermine your perceived authenticity. Learn to acquire the skills that a group needs or join a firm that appreciates the skills you have.’
RISING How would you recommend someone projects themselves as a leader?
AH ‘Our research suggests there are four key components of leadership that all hinge on processes of social identity management — which is to say, understanding a sense of “us”. These are: a) creating a sense of us, b) representing us, c) doing it for us, and d) making us matter. The more leaders do these things – or are perceived to do them – the more effective they will be.’
‘Confidence isn’t simply a personal attribute – it’s something we get from the groups we belong to’
RISING Let's say a workplace you lead in needs more discipline to increase productivity – would a punishment/rewards system work?
AH ‘In my experience, carrots and sticks are the worst ways to engender followership. It’s generally far better to set appropriate norms and to show yourself to be willing to work towards them. Leading by example is far more effective than leadership by retribution.’
RISING Do you have a golden rule for projecting the leader one wants to be?
AH ‘Leadership is a “we” thing, not an “I” thing, so think more about “us” and less about “me”.’
WHAT NEXT? Feeling a lack of confidence in any work setting? Alex suggests reaching out to a more experienced individual: ‘It can be hard to learn on your own. A key thing is often to find a mentor who will help you develop these skills and give you useful feedback. This is important because confidence, like resilience, isn’t simply a personal attribute; rather it is something we get from the groups we belong to.’