6 Ways Psychology Can Help You
Become a Better Leader

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'Leadership' has become such a buzzword in recent years that nowadays it almost doesn’t mean anything.

Programs intending to develop “leadership skills” can often mean nothing more than networking, and “leadership development” books can boil down to an individual puffing themselves up in order to market their personal brand.

At the same time as this surge of “pop leadership”, psychology researchers have also increased their efforts to cut through the clutter and aggregate real data on the science of leadership.

Here are six psychological ideas that you can implement to become a better leader:

There Is No One Way to Be a Leader

The first thing you can learn from immersing yourself in the psychology of leadership is that there are as many ways to be an effective leader as there are leadership positions, and there are as many effective ways to inspire people as there are people.

The current wisdom amongst psychological theorists is an integration of two separate approaches: Situational Theory and Trait Theory. What this means is that there isn’t one universal psychological profile that makes you an effective leader, and there isn’t one perfect situation that can “thrust leadership upon you.” Instead it’s a combination of the two.

Being a good leader is both being in the right place at the right time, but also being the right person for your place and time.

Leaders Never “Turn it Off”

Just as leadership is not just about having the right traits, and not just about being in the right situation, it is also not something that one can turn on and off.

Psychological theorists study leadership holistically, finding patterns both inside and outside of the formal leadership role.

The Integrated Psychological theory of leadership proposes that the most effective leaders exert an influence on three levels: public, private, and personal. The most effective leaders are able to effect change on a public level, in groups of more than two, and on a private level, in one-on-one interactions.

Critically, though, leaders do not “turn it off” outside of their role, and also maintain their leadership mind-set on a personal level, living out the beliefs and attitudes that they infuse into their leadership role.

Leadership Starts with Your Posture and Body Language

The important thing about realizing that there is no magic formula to leadership and that leadership happens on multiple levels simultaneously is that it gives one a framework for how to learn about leadership.

Psychology teaches that the way leaders develop leadership skills involves a slow, steady process of observation, trial and error, interpersonal connection, and experience.

The first place to start observing is your own body. Amy Cuddy, social psychologist and professor at Harvard Business School, has demonstrated that even something as simple as assuming a powerful body posture, with chest open and limbs expanded, can significantly impact how a leader is received by their peers or subordinates.

For more on this see our pages: Body Language and Non-Verbal Communication: Face and Voice

Relationships Are the Fundamental Unit of Leadership

After establishing a healthy awareness of one’s own bodily presence in a leadership role, the next step outward is at the level of interpersonal relationships.

Another recent theoretical development in the psychological understanding of leadership is called the leader–member exchange (LMX) theory.

While many of us can fall prey to the stereotype that leaders exert their influence in front of huge crowds, giving rousing, cinematic speeches, LMX theory instructs us that the fundamental unit of leadership is the one-on-one relationship, and that without building an interpersonal network based on trust and respect, no leader can be effective even if they have charisma and brilliant ideas.

Leadership Often Looks Like Followership

In placing the focus on interpersonal relationships, the psychology of leadership also introduces a useful concept for leaders: the idea of followership.

When leaders begin to understand the importance of building trust and respect in their co-workers and subordinates, it lends a humility and a collegiality that keeps them from the prideful pitfalls of so many leaders. The best leaders understand that their leadership is impossible without the dedication, trust, and belief of their followers, and so they focus in turn on empowering these people.

Leaders See Through the Us vs. Them, Ingroup vs. Outgroup Mentality

Once leaders have followed this outwardly spiralling path of growth, moving from an awareness of yourself, to an awareness of your place in a relationship, to an awareness of the other person’s place in the relationship, the next step in the maturation of a leader is to understand the dynamics of larger groups.

An easy marker of poor leadership (and something we sadly see too often in today’s political leaders) is a tendency to separate groups into “Us vs. Them.” When leaders focus their reward structures on things like loyalty or intellectual conformity, and reject the “Outgroup” that fails to meet these expectations, it indicates self-absorption and fear of losing power.

The best leaders, instead of directing focus at the “Outgroup,” become interested in serving both “Ingroup” and “Outgroup” individuals. They lose interest in themselves and instead turn their attention to enacting their ideals, honouring their relationships, and achieving the collective vision of the group. When a leader has achieved this level of maturation, they welcome challenges to their leadership, nonconformist ideas, and divergent solutions, rather than being threatened by them.

Further Reading from Skills You Need

The Skills You Need Guide to Leadership

The Skills You Need Guide to Leadership eBooks

Learn more about the skills you need to be an effective leader.

Our eBooks are ideal for new and experienced leaders and are full of easy-to-follow practical information to help you to develop your leadership skills.

In conclusion, there are as many theories about leadership as there are leadership situations. Psychology does not purport to reveal the magical answers to leadership, but rather offers real data confirmed by scientific experiments, as well as useful models and intellectual frameworks that lead to a more sophisticated understanding of leadership.

With the help of these six psychological ideas, you can start on the path of becoming a better leader.

About the Author

Marcus regularly blogs at psysci.co a psychology, science and health blog that examines the latest research and explains how findings can impact and help individuals’ everyday lives.