Here’s a quick blog post detailing some points from a presentation I made to the 11th International Council for Coaching Excellence (ICCE) Global Coach Conference, hosted by Liverpool John Moores University, at the end of July 2017.

I spoke to a paper of mine, titled “A social identity approach to sports: Principles, practice, and prospects.” You can download the paper at its official home here, but it’s paywalled, so either email me or download the Word version here.

This paper is about a social identity approach more widely, not just leadership. In the talk, I initially outlined a few key aspects.

Social identity theory was developed against the backdrop of psychological approaches that emphasized individual-level factors, and failed to take account of social context.

According to social identity theory, behavior may be driven by the character and motivations of the person as an individual (personal identity); and behavior may be driven by group membership (social identity).

Although psychological theorizing in sport generally tends to construe the self (who I am) in purely personal terms (i.e., as referring to a person’s understanding of themselves as ‘I’ and ‘me’), social identity theorizing asserts that the self can be, and often is, defined in social terms (as ‘we’ and ‘us’). It is social identity that underpins people’s sense that they are part of a particular team, squad, club, or organization.

Interestingly, our sense of self varies as a function of the prevailing social setting. So, I both behave and see myself in a certain way when as a fan I watch my team Arsenal play Chelsea. I may both behave and see myself differently when as a fan I watch England play Scotland, or when I support Team GB in the Olympics, or when I support Europe’s Ryder Cup efforts against the USA. Thus, the groups to which I belong can inform the way I see myself.

In the talk, I raised two interesting concepts: permeability of group boundaries; and depersonalization.

  1. When players see boundaries between groups as permeable (so that one can move between groups), they can often engage in a strategy of social mobility and personal enhancement, wherein, for example, they seek to move to a better team—such as one sees in the transfer market in professional sport. If group boundaries are impermeable, such as when playing for a national team (generally, a player cannot just up and change to a different national team), players can’t move. So, if their team is struggling, they will either prove disruptive, or they may work with other players to improve their situation.
  2. A core process that binds group members to one another (team member to team member, or in leadership terms, player to coach) is depersonalization. This is a form of self-stereotyping through which the self comes to be perceived as categorically interchangeable with other group members, so that for example a person might view “us” Liverpool fans as very different to “them” Manchester United fans.

And so to Leadership: Leadership is not about management, authority, or decision-making. It’s not just getting people to do things. It’s not about compliance, but achieving influence. Thus, leadership is about getting people to want to do things. From a social identity perspective, leadership is not about identifying in leaders that “special stuff” that sets them apart from others. It’s not about “I” as the leader, but “we” as a group. For successful leadership, both leaders and followers need to see each other as part of a common group or team.

How can this be achieved? A key point is that before an individual can lead a group, he/she first has to understand it. This suggests the importance of both taking opportunities to learn about group history, culture, and functioning and also attending to the group’s values, norms, and goals.

More succinctly, leaders can do this by taking steps to:

  1. be seen “as one of us” (leaders need to be seen as a model member of the group)
  2. be seen “to do it for us” (leaders need to advance and stand up for the group’s interests)
  3. craft “a sense of us” (leaders need to clarify people’s understanding of what the group stands for, by defining core values, norms, and ideals)
  4. make “us matter” (leaders need to promote structures that facilitate and embed shared understanding, coordination, and success)

As a start, one would do well to heed the advice in the 5R programme, which details a process for leaders to work within a social identity perspective.

Please do leave some comments/questions, or email me for more details.

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