Personnel Psychology, Book Review Section, 429-431. S. Alexander Haslam, Stephen D.
Reicher, and Michael J. Platow. The new psychology of leadership: Identity, influence
and power. NY: Psychology Press, 2011, 267 pages, $24.95, soft cover.
Reviewed by Gary B. Brumback, Palm Coast, FL
I hesitated to take on this book review. Do we really need another theory of leadership?
The last time I looked there were 12 of them (Northouse, 1997). Moreover, what America
needs is not a “new psychology of leadership,” but a new breed of leadership. From my
own research (e.g., Brumback, 2011) I have concluded that public and corporate leaders
have failed us for decades by corrupting each other and pursuing their own self interests
rather than to promote the general welfare, a promise made in the preamble to our
But I set my reservations aside and launched into the forward by George A. Akerlof.
This may be my first time to comment on a forward and its author. Akerlof is a Nobel
Laureate in economics from Berkeley. What he wrote I found interesting, and I was
impressed that the book’s authors, all academic psychologists, the first two in England,
the third in Australia, were able to get such a distinguished economist to write the
forward. How many of the rest of us have ever been able to do that? Moreover, Akerlof
praises the authors’ theory, saying it “seems so very right that it may come as a surprise
that this is not already the concept of leadership everywhere---from psychology and
economics textbooks to airport bookstores” (p. xvi). After reading the book, I find I’m
not surprised and think Akerlof should stick to economics.
Note that the main title does not read “The new theory of leadership.” I wonder if the
authors are confidently thinking they’ve now got an indefensible theory that needs no
further testing and is ready for use in “advising leaders” (p. xxiii). In waiting until the last
(eighth) chapter to give that advice the authors explain that they “want to persuade the
reader of the credibility and coherence of” their theory (p. xxiii).
Just what is “new” about the “new psychology of leadership?” To answer this question
the authors ask us to read the first two chapters where they contrast their “social identity”
theory of leadership with the “old” and “current” psychology. While they do not totally
reject the other psychologies, they make it very clear that their theory is not something
like a personal identity theory (e.g., a personality-based theory). Rather, they present a
“social identity theory.” Their core concept of social identity, they say, is derived “from
what has, over the last quarter century, or so, become the dominant approach to the study
of groups in social psychology” (p. 45). On the surface anyway, that claim seems to be
contradicted by Akerlof’s claim that “social identity theory---is outside of the mainstream
[in psychology]” (p. xvi). But since he’s an economist, I’ll take the three authors’ word
I’m stalling on telling you just what the theory is because after wading through
Chapters 3-7 I really don’t quite know how to distill what I read into less than a five-
chapter review. The authors define social identity as “an individual’s sense of
internalized group membership” (p. 46). Throughout these five chapters the authors
present many constructs besides that of social identity. I’ve lined them up here from the
book’s subject index: “artists of identity,” “categorization,” “depersonalization,”
“embedders of identity,” “entrepreneurs of identity,” “identity leadership and identity
makers,” “identity management,” “idiosyncrasy credit,” “impermeability (and
“permeability”) of group boundaries,” “impresarios of identity,” “positive
distinctiveness,” “power over versus power through leadership,” “prototypicality,”
“recategorization,” “reflexive influence gradient,” “salience of categories,” “self-
category,” and “self-categorization.”
To their credit the authors do yeomen work in coming up with many experiments
(thought and lab experiments), field studies, historical figures from ancient Greece
forward, classical literature, classical theatre, sports events, and even poetry that they
believe support and/or illustrate their constructs. For example, they turn a few times to
the Bard, William Shakespeare, as in the case of Macbeth, to illustrate supposedly the
power-over form of leadership in “the tragic decline of a ruler whose betrayal of his
group takes him from loyal and trusted son to despised and rejected tyrant “(p. 63). I
especially enjoyed reading the literary and real-to-life examples, whatever the strength
they might add to the validity of their theory.
In the last chapter where their theory meets the road so to speak, the authors begin by
saying that “it is all very well to produce a theoretical model that explains how leadership
works---but what does this mean for leaders on the ground?” (p. 198). Their answer is to
offer the “3 ‘R’s of identity leadership: “reflecting by observing and listening to the
group; representing by ensuring that your actions reflect and advance the group’s values;
and realizing by delivering, and being seen to deliver, things that matter to the group” (p.
How valid their theory really is in terms of content, construct, or criterion validity I
don’t know. I found, for example, no explicit hypotheses with unchallengeable tests of
them, but that is an unreasonable expectation to have for a subject as broad and subjective
as leadership. It’s fair, though, to see what the authors expect of their theory. Near the
end of the second chapter, after reviewing the old and current psychology of leadership,
the authors list four key elements that any adequate theory of leadership should include.
The theory must (p. 43): 1. “Explain why different contexts demand different forms of
leadership.” 2. “Analyze the dynamic interaction between leaders and followers.” 3.
“Address the role of power in the leadership process.” 4. “Include [and explain] a
transformational element.” It would have been helpful if the authors had summarized
how their constructs and evidence met these expectations or would have at least titled
their chapters by the key elements or tagged them with page numbers where
argumentation and evidence could be more easily examined vis-à-vis each element (I’m
not about to do that for the authors and you). The chapters’ titles seem to bear little
similarity to these elements. Moreover, I suppose the elements could have been identified
after the theory was built just as the slew of studies, anecdotes, etc. mentioned could have
been carefully selected while or after building the constructs.
I reject the authors’ assertion that “the psychology of leadership is never about “I”--- it
is very much a “we” thing” (p. xxi) and their “foundational premise of our new
psychology of leadership---[being]---that without a shared sense of ‘us,’ neither
leadership nor followership is possible” (p. 54). The psychopath Hitler, whom the authors
cite frequently for illustrative purposes, certainly depended on devout followers, but they
became devout because he was a masterful manipulator of them. And for an iconoclast
like me (I’ve been called one), I must also reject their argument that the shared sense of
us depends on a depersonalization of the self. Both exemplary leaders and their followers
in my opinion are first guided by their own sense of right and wrong which happens to be
I predict that the authors’ new psychology of leadership will soon become just another
psychology of leadership. And if you collect theories of leadership, here’s another one to
add to your collection.
Brumback, GB. (2011). The devil’s marriage: Break up the corpocracy or leave
democracy in the lurch. Bloomington, IN: Author House.
Northouse, PG. (1997). Leadership: Theory and practice. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.