One of the most fascinating things about the ten year quest that eventually resulted in the publication of my book, The Five Literacies of Global Leadership, is how conventional wisdom can be so easily overturned with intellectual rigour, closer scrutiny of the evidence, and perhaps a dash of healthy scepticism. 

We often assume that authentic leadership entails having charisma, in addition to other certain personality traits, in abundance. One new book after another constantly feeds us information, usually posing as academically rigorous evidence, asserting as much. 

The opposite happens to be closer to the truth. But there is so much noise in the market place, especially concerning the leadership of organisations, that the truth is often lost. 

Let us, for a moment, examine the dominant Western approach to leadership. Many popular theories harness psychology, possibly quite legitimately, to help distinguish between those who have a propensity to lead and those that do not – commonly referred to as followers. But some of the core assumptions underpinning these theories are inconsistent. Others are fatally flawed. 

For example, many Western notions of leadership (initiated by social theorist Max Weber almost 100 years ago in his notion of ‘charismatic leadership’) perpetuate the myth that great leaders use their innate talents and strength of character to dominate followers and tell them what to do, the aim being either to enforce compliance with their wishes or to instill in people the passion (for taking a particular course of action) they would otherwise lack. Others (based on influential social psychologist Fred Fiedler’s work in the 1960s and 1970s) favour contingency models, focus on discovering and replicating the perfect match between a leader and the context in which the leader is operating.

As a consequence of these flawed hypotheses, people in positions of authority are perceived to be model leaders – rather than managers, which is their actual role. This also explains why middle aged male CEOs, military officers, politicians and heads of state are so often depicted as leaders and why women find it difficult to be viewed as such: they lack the very qualities that would potentially give them similar credibility; characteristics we assume to be vital aspects of leadership.  

This kind of confusion has led many, otherwise intelligent, organisations down a futile path where particular qualities, such as determination, perseverance, and assertiveness, are portrayed and modelled as essential leadership behaviours within an overall competency framework. Worse, these theories all imply that leaders with adequate strength of character and willpower can prevail over whatever reality they confront. As the world becomes increasingly complex this is an absurd path to take. And yet we pursue these things so seriously!

So what is the truth? How can we begin to define a leadership psychology that makes sense today – remembering that the psychological worldview is an essentially Western invention and may become less and less relevant in a world culturally predisposed to less emphatic philosophies?

The major thrust of our research into The Five Literacies points to a new philosophy of leadership, where the term ‘leadership’ is framed within a global context and defined as the capability and volition to help shape what people want to do – rather than what they are told they must do. 

This led us, quite early on, to affirm our belief that the most authentic leaders (in terms of raising the human spirit to new aspirations and endeavours) are not necessarily bound by gender, age, nationality or belief. On the contrary, they can be men, women and children of any nationality and belief system. And, surprise, surprise, when we started looking for examples outside of the traditional spotlight in which ‘leadership’ is thought to occur, we found an abundant supply of ordinary people doing extraordinary things. People we were delighted to identify as Five Literacies leaders. 

In one sense, Five Literacies leadership exists independently of performance. Yet the qualities exhibited by Five Literacies leaders are well attuned to the achievement of great things in situations that would defeat most others before the starter’s gun has been fired. 

Quite distinct from the more popularly assumed qualities of effective leadership, the most vital qualities of Five Literacies leaders we saw over and over were those of:

 Constituent Cooperation – the ability to gain integrity rapidly by locating themselves within the group rather than ‘above it’ or separate from it

  • Ecological Sensitivity – the knack of fitting in with the group such that the group’s identity could be shaped in ways that made their own agenda and policies appear to be an expression of that identity
  • Ecority – The capacity to get people to take authority for the reality they themselves have created while constantly seeking futures that better balance technology and humanity

In essence, by appreciating the values and beliefs of the people with whom they are working, and avoiding any tendency to assume absolute authority, Five Literacies leaders are able to facilitate a collegial dialogue about what the group stands for, and thus how it should act, in ways that continuously generate new possibilities and nurture trust. 

It is abundantly clear that no fixed set of personality traits or behaviours can ever assure Five Literacies leadership, because the most desirable qualities invariably depend upon the nature of the group itself as well as the context within which they find themselves. That simple hypothesis, sets Five Literacies leaders apart. Five Literacies leadership is premised not on individual makeup, talent or personality, but on the inherent psychology of the group with which the leader most strongly identifies.

As we know, most leadership models of the past century are based on notions of (a) the charismatic individual or (b) the contextual dynamics in which leaders function. I strongly believe that both approaches are flawed. 

Whereas ‘charismatic’ models of leadership insist strength of character, coupled with a rare set of personal attributes, determine leadership effectiveness, and ‘contingency’ models suggest the secret of good leadership boils down to finding the perfect match between the individual and the challenge at hand, (responsible for a multitude of best-selling business books as well as the fortunes charged by today’s corporate head hunters) the fundamental assumption on which the theory of Five Literacies leadership is based concerns the phenomenon of ‘social identity’.

The concept of ‘social identity’ allows us to avoid the wearisome flip-flop between those who assert that a great leader can surmount any situation and those who rejoin that it is the circumstances that define the leader. 

Coined in the 1970s by Henri Jajfel and John Turner at the University of Bristol in England, the term ‘social identity’ refers to that part of an individual’s awareness of self that is both derived and defined by being a  member of a group – be it family, gang, sect or even nation. In this context, leadership arises from the symbiotic relationship between people within a given social group or community. Essentially, social identity makes group behaviour possible. It allows us to identify with the group, reach agreement on what matters most to us, and coordinate our actions in striving towards shared goals. In other words, social identity enables coherent collective action.

This is why Five Literacies leaders require a common ‘us’ to represent. It clarifies why dictators, autocrats and bullies cannot be deemed Five Literacies leaders. And it justifies the need to redefine the term (global) leadership as ‘an intentional collaborative process for improving the human condition’.

The emergence of social identity helps to elucidate the transformation we see in the strategies used by rulers associated with the genesis of modern nation states in the 19th century. Before national identities emerged European monarchs could only rule as autocrats, using power to control their citizens. But once people identified with the state, effective monarchs were able to rule as patriots, leading their people by virtue of the shared national identity they embodied. Monarchs like Louis XVI of France who grossly underestimated or misunderstood this shift literally lost their heads! 

More recently, social identity has become especially germane owing to the growing numbers of people around the world, enabled by new information and communications technologies such as the Internet, who engage in social networking activities. This, together with related phenomena yet to emerge from even more astonishing technologies, will only increase the need for new approaches to leadership. 

 When a shared social identity exists, individuals who can best represent that identity will invariably have the most influence over other members in the group: their authenticity, as culturally prototypical of the group, speaks volumes. Which is why they become the most effective leaders. Not only do they exemplify what makes the group distinct from (and even superior to) other comparable groups, they are able to do this from a position of belonging. This is what Five Literacies leaders do almost instinctively.

The wash up of all of this is four elementary lessons. Firstly, in spite of all the products in the human resource market place suggesting otherwise, legitimate, effective and authentic leadership in today’s global environment does not require a pre-determined set of personality traits, talents, skills or behaviours. Nor does it mean applying universal rules of behaviour. Likewise, competency frameworks cannot deliver. In fact the most desirable leadership qualities are emergent: they must fit with the culture of the group being led and this will inevitably vary from one group to another and from time to time. 

Secondly, anything that distances a leader from the group or sets them apart (including financial compensation) will ultimately compromise their effectiveness, undermining their credibility and ability to influence particular outcomes. 

Thirdly, authentic leaders do more than merely reflect and conform to current norms. Indeed the most effective leaders will constantly shape their group’s social identity (through the principles underlying their words and deeds) to fit with their vision of how things should or could be, enabling them to position these as expressions of what their constituents already believe to be in their best interests.

Finally it must be remembered that identity must be in harmony with reality. Even some of the most oft-touted leadership skills, such as intelligence, personal charm and assertiveness, for example, can be out-of-kilter in some situations today. The wise leader is not simply attuned to making the group’s social identity ‘real’ but also helps the community experience that identity as real. In order to do that, the only sensible approach is to constantly scan the environment and design or adopt traits that fit with changing circumstances. This is why the Five Literacies (essentially domains of understanding) will be so vital in the future.