What makes people want to follow a leader? What makes them – in the most extreme cases – willing to lay down their lives for that person?

At their best, leaders are ‘living symbols’ of a particular set of values that the followers subscribe to, enabling an almost spiritual feeling of being part of something greater than oneself. Think of what Churchill was to the British in the Second World War, what Gandhi was to the non-violence movement, or, to take some business examples, what Richard Branson is to Virgin staff or Steve Jobs to Apple devotees.

If we accept the Clare Graves/Spiral Dynamics theory that values systems evolve and develop, the best leaders assist in the evolution of an organization’s values system or culture by calling to and encouraging the elements that are ready to make the leap to the next level. Leaders are also to an extent a blank canvas onto which their followers project elements of their own values systems. Which values are appealed to and projected – the best or the worst – will depend on what the leader says and does.

As part of this projection process, followers make sense of a leader’s words and actions by making up a ‘story’ about them. In the follower’s mind, the leader becomes the hero of a narrative constructed partly from pre-existing archetypes (the king, the wise woman, the father, the magician) which are common to society as a whole, and partly from the traditions and culture of that particular organization.

The meaning of what we say, or what we do, depends on its context. Delivering a hilariously accurate character assessment to a close colleague will mean one thing over a few friendly pints, but quite another in the middle of a board meeting. So the words, actions and qualities of a leader are assessed in the context of the culture in which they are operating. Depending on the context against which they are played out, the same actions could be viewed as:

Decisive or ruthless
Supportive or mollycoddling
Taking an interest or overcontrolling
Visionary or out of touch with reality

(thanks to Peter Freeth for this insight)

One of the great leadership skills is the ability to ‘read’ the culture and emotional climate of the organisation successfully and to communicate and act in ways that are appropriate to that context. Successful leaders act in ways that are consistent with the ‘narrative’ that their followers have constructed (if this is a positive view) or that change the terms of the narrative (if it needs to be changed). This consistency does not mean that the leader’s actions have to be predictable – the best leaders can surprise their people from time to time, but the surprises will be positive ones – just that the followers can make sense of them in terms of the organization’s ‘story’.

Without this empathy for organizational culture and the feelings of the people who are part of it, anything that the leader does is liable to backfire and be misinterpreted.

The practical implication of this is that the better you understand the culture of the organization you work in and the feelings of the people you lead, the more effective you will be as a leader.

Social Awareness and Leadership

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