Leadership and Identity in Combating COVID: Excerpt from ‘Together Apart’

June 17, 2020 2266

Since COVID-19 first began spreading around the world, there have been myriad examples of leadership that has not only motivated people to work for collective goals but also helped them understand how best they can do this. Two examples are Jürgen Klopp’s address to Liverpool fans early on in the crisis on March 13 and Queen Elizabeth II’s televised address to the British public and members of the Commonwealth on April 6. Klopp had the challenging task of letting fans know that their bid for a first Premiership in 30 years had been halted by COVID-19, but did so by pointing out that “if it’s a choice between football and the good of the wider society, it’s no contest” (Klopp, 2020). “First and foremost”, he observed, “all of us have to do whatever we can to protect one another. In society I mean. This should be the case all the time in life, but in this moment I think it matters more than ever”. Likewise, the Queen zeroed in on the need for solidarity and collective steadfastness in her address:   

Together we are tackling this disease, and I want to reassure you that if we remain united and resolute, then we will overcome it. I hope in the years to come everyone will be able to take pride in how they responded to this challenge. And those who come after us will say the Britons of this generation were as strong as any. That the attributes of self-discipline, of quiet good-humoured resolve and of fellow-feeling still characterise this country. The pride in who we are is not a part of our past, it defines our present and our future. (Stubley, 2020)

Nevertheless, in the first months of the COVID-19 crisis there were a great many occasions on which leaders’ efforts at influence and mobilization fell short. We will not dwell on these here, but in this chapter want to ask what precisely it is that makes leaders more or less successful in their attempts to recruit the energies of others to their cause. What is it, for example, that led people (including Liverpool’s rivals and committed non-royalists) not just to applaud Klopp’s and the Queen’s leadership, but to engage in acts of followership that translated their calls for mutual care and compassion into action? This indeed, is the critical question — for the ultimate proof of leadership is not how impressive a leader looks or sounds, but what they lead others to do in the name of the group they lead (Bennis, 1999; Platow et al., 2015).

In order to address the issues surrounding COVID-19 and its collateral effects, Social Science Space is presenting a series of articles drawn from the new book Together Apart: the Psychology of COVID-19. You can click to each article in this section on collective behavior using the links below. To download an uncorrected proof version of the book, click here.

As we foreshadowed in the opening section of this book, our answer to this question centres on the dynamics of social identity. More specifically, we argue that leaders’ capacity to motivate others is grounded in what we refer to as their identity leadership (Steffens et al., 2014) — their ability to represent and advance the shared interests of group members and to create and embed a sense of shared social identity among them (a sense of “us-ness”; see Haslam et al., 2020). For leaders, then, this sense of us-ness is the key resource that they need to marshal in order to secure the support and toil of others. Accordingly, we see that this sense of shared social identity was pivotal to the communications of both Klopp and the Queen — with Klopp using the terms “we”, “us” and “our” 17 times in a text of 381 words and the Queen referring to these collective pronouns 27 times in a speech of 524 words (i.e., once every 22 words and once every 19 words respectively). Indeed, the power of such language is confirmed in previous research which found that politicians who win elections use collective pronouns once every 79 words while those who lose elections use them only once every 136 words (Steffens & Haslam, 2013).

We can enlarge upon this analysis by outlining three key ways in which leaders need to manage social identity in order to be effective: (a) by representing us, (b) by doing it for us, and (c) by crafting and embedding a sense of us. These things have previously been shown to underpin effective leadership in a broad range of contexts — most notably, in a global study of effective organizational leadership conducted in 22 different countries and covering all 6 inhabited continents (van Dick et al., 2018). They have also very much come to the fore in mobilizing responses to COVID-19.

Leaders need to represent us, and in a crisis ‘us’ becomes more inclusive

As noted above, one way that people have dealt with the uncertainty and fear created by COVID-19 is by turning to leaders for information and reassurance. But in a world where much is unproven and unknown, who do we perceive to be in a position to provide this? The answer is those with whom we share social identity and who are prototypical members of our ingroups who best represent our values, our interests, and our perspective on the world (Hogg, 2001; Turner & Haslam, 2001). This in turn means that those who are prototypical of ‘us’ are in the best position to exert influence (i.e., leadership) over us.

The significance of this point has been apparent since the start of the COVID-19 crisis — where it is clear that people’s responses to news of the virus were shaped by opinion leaders who reflected their political preferences. In particular, leading conservative platforms in Western countries (e.g., Fox News in the U.S., Sky News in Australia) argued that the virus was a hysterical left-wing hoax, and that there was no need for alarm (Gabbatt, 2020; Jones, 2020). As a result, it was apparent that in the early weeks of COVID-19’s spread through many Western countries, conservatives were much less likely than liberals to take health warnings seriously and to make adjustments to their daily lives (Heath, 2020; see also Chapter 17).

However, as the scale of the problem posed by the virus increased, it became clear that there was a requirement for national leaders to represent shared national identities rather than their narrower political allegiances. Accordingly, most leaders showed a marked increase in the inclusivity of their rhetoric (although there were notable exceptions; e.g., in Brazil, India, and the U.S.). As the Australian Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, put it “There are no blue teams or red teams. There are no more unions or bosses. There are just Australians now” (Johnson, 2020). At the same time too, leaders’ status as prototypical representatives of a national ‘us’ was consolidated because a rising spirit of national unity made it harder for those leaders’ opponents either to criticise them or to gain the limelight themselves (Stewart, 2020).

One important upshot of this embrace of inclusive national (vs. exclusive party political) identities was a sharp uplift in leaders’ popularity — a pattern seen previously in the wake of other national disasters (e.g., 9/11; Schubert et al., 2002). Whereas previously leaders’ support had come largely from their own political base, now their appeal extended beyond party lines. Indeed, in March 2020 the approval levels of leaders of 10 of the world’s biggest democracies rose by an average of 9% — with most of that rise attributable to an increase in support from non-aligned voters (Stacey & Pickard, 2020). Moreover, it appears that the extent of this rise was itself a reflection of leaders’ ability to embody the collective spirit of their nations — something that was appreciably more marked in countries like the U.K., Canada and New Zealand than it was in places like the United States, Japan and Brazil (Leaders League, 2020).                                  

Leaders need to be seen to do it for us, and there is no place for leader exceptionalism 

In a time of crisis, people not only want leaders who represent them and their shared concerns, but also leaders who do things to address those concerns. In particular, people look to leaders to take the initiative and develop policies that respond in meaningful ways to the crisis they collectively confront. To the extent that such actions are seen to be motivated by broad concern for the community, support for them often comes from unlikely quarters. In Australia, for example, the conservative Morrison government recruited former union leader Greg Combet to help develop its business strategy and manage employee relations — something neither party would have deemed conscionable prior to the crisis (McCulloch, 2020).             

A corollary of this is that if leaders are seen to be looking after their own personal interests (i.e., ‘doing it for me’) they will be a target of opprobrium. For this reason, there was widespread condemnation of U.S. Senators Burr, Loeffler, Inhofe, and Feinstein when reports emerged they had sold off shares after gaining privileged access to information about the likely impact of COVID-19 on the U.S. stockmarket (Zabollis-Roig, 2020). Indeed, where leaders appear to hold themselves above the group and its standards, this will often be the kiss of death. Thus Scotland’s Chief Medical Officer, Catherine Calderwood, was made to walk the plank after flouting her own Department’s advice to reduce unnecessary travel (Carrell, 2020), as was the New Zealand Health Minister, David Clark, after violating his own government’s lockdown by going mountain biking (McKay, 2020).

So while leaders may be tempted to see themselves as exceptions to group rules, any such decoupling can be fatal for public trust. Moreover, the key problem with leader exceptionalism of this form is that by seeming to place the leader above the group it undermines the sense of shared identity that leaders depend on in order to lead successfully. As the Scottish Labour leader, Richard Leonard, said of Calderwood’s lapse: this “runs the serious risk of causing public confidence to collapse. This is in no-one’s interest at a time of national crisis” (Carrell, 2020).

Leaders need to craft and embed a sense of us, and this creates a platform for citizenship  

A final point about the link between leadership and social identity is that both require hard work. Leadership proves appreciably easier if leaders have prepared for a crisis by developing a response capacity and appropriate contingency plans (Jetten et al., 2020). As we and others have previously observed, responses to natural disasters such as floods and earthquakes are also far more effective when the people they affect have a pre-existing sense of shared social identity (Muldoon et al., 2019; Williams & Drury, 2009). Nevertheless, this sense of shared identity is never something that leaders can take for granted, and it always has to be worked on. More particularly, they need to be identity entrepreneurs and identity impresarios who strive to build and then embed a shared sense of ‘us’ within the groups they lead (Haslam et al., 2020).

Clear examples of this were provided in the early COVID-related communications of the New Zealand Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern. In contrast to similar messages in other countries (see Figure 3), these went to great pains to explain not just what New Zealanders needed to do, but why this was essential for the country as a whole. As she put it:

The Government will do all it can to protect you. Now I’m asking you to do everything you can to protect us all. None of us can do this alone. Your actions will be critical to our collective ability to stop the spread of COVID-19. Failure to play your part in the coming days will put the lives of others at risk. There will be no tolerance for that and we will not hesitate in using enforcement powers if needed. We’re in this together and must unite against COVID-19. (TVNZ, 2020)

Figure 3. The importance of identity leadership

Such efforts of identity leadership are critical because the shared social identity that leaders cultivate provides the all-important psychological platform for the coordination of collective efforts to tackle the challenges that the group as a whole faces (Haslam & Reicher, 2006). Indeed, without this platform of shared social identity, there is a risk that people will eschew acts of citizenship in which they look out for each other (e.g., by engaging in physical distancing or adhering to quarantine), and instead embrace a philosophy of “everyone for themselves” (see also Chapter 18). Effective identity leadership thus serves the dual function of (a) holding groups together through a crisis and (b) constructively channelling the energies of group members in ways that increase the likelihood of positive outcomes. 

The importance of identity leadership for the management of COVID-19 was highlighted by the Canadian Broadcasting Company’s Justin McElroy when he reflected on the success of British Columba in containing the spread of the virus. This, he argued, had much to do with the hard work the province’s Chief Medical Health Officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry, had done to build an open and inclusive relationship of mutual trust with her fellow British Columbians:

Given that part of this response depends on being altruistic and doing the right thing to help other people who we will never meet, having a leader who can articulate how we’re all in this together and make a convincing case for why you need to do your part … is very important. (McElroy, 2020).

In short, the key to successful leadership is not simply to talk about everybody being ‘in this together’, but to do everything in one’s power to ensure that this is their lived experience — and that you are representative of it.  

Explore the social influence chapters of Together Apart

Introduction to Social Influence

Leadership | S. Alex Haslam
The ultimate proof of leadership is not how impressive a leader looks or sounds, but what they lead others to do.

Compliance and Followership | Niklas K. Steffens
What drives compliance and followership? When do people choose not to comply with advice or regulations? What are helpful (and not so helpful) forms of followership?

Behaviour Change | Frank Mols
Social identity processes are a key source of human strength, and that leaders who tap into these are best positioned to drive the forms of behaviour change required to defeat COVID-19.    

Conspiracy Theories | Matthew Hornsey
Conspiracy theories are often peddled by leaders and people in positions of authority with a view to shoring up support for a worldview which they represent and are seeking to advance.

S. Alexander Haslam is a professor in the School of Psychology at the University of Queensland.

View all posts by S. Alex Haslam

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