What does the US election tell us about leadership? More than you might think

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The heart of leadership is not necessarily about skills. It is not about being strategic rather than operational, nor is it about driving performance through intrinsic motivation rather than carrots and sticks. While these may be helpful, the heart and soul of leadership is followership. Leaders are not defined by job title or hierarchical position, rather they are distinguished by influence. Their effectiveness comes down to whether people believe in them, listen to them, and follow them.

It is safe to say that a lot of people are bewildered by how Donald Trump could become the president elect of the United States. At first glance, he does not seem to have the knowledge, experience, or temperament for the position. But whether this is the case or not, he has acquired an impressive following; no less than 60 million Americans voted for him in the recent presidential election.

Contemporary leadership research has demonstrated that people tend to follow those who are seen as ‘one of us’, those who are prototypical of the group. The reason being, when someone is prototypical of a group they are implicitly seen to represent what is important, and can be trusted to be a leader. In an interesting study, researchers from the University of Queensland found that in Australian Federal elections, victors used collective pronouns (‘we’ and ‘us’ rather than ‘I’ and ‘me’) more than their opponents in 80 percent of elections. These findings, along with several supporting studies, suggest that successful leaders are ‘identity entrepreneurs’; they use tools such as language to craft a sense of identity that mirrors their potential followers’ and fosters group behaviour.

While there are many who may not think of Donald Trump as a ‘good’ leader, he is a successful one because he has been able to construct his identity to represent certain groups of people in the US. This insight into leadership is not limited to politics, and we could think about what this means for us as leaders in business, and how we too can be identity entrepreneurs.

This idea of identity entrepreneurship is about crafting a sense of ‘we’. By developing strong team dynamics, by listening to your team, by visibly embodying their values, and by putting in place initiatives to realise collective goals We often think of leadership at work as being about business acumen but in the end it is the same as politics, it is about getting buy-in and representing the people. It is the followers who hold the power to determine how influential and how much impact a leader can have. While the outcome of the US election may have come as surprise to some, it can also be a lesson for us, to make sure we think about how we lead, and what we are doing to be or become identity entrepreneurs.

Kieran is a member of the People and Change team at KPMG Australia. He is a provisionally registered psychologist, and recently completed a master’s of organisational psychology at the University of Queensland.

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