Successful leaders are ‘one of us’

22 October 2020

A successful leader is one who creates a shared sense of ‘us-ness’ in the groups they lead, according to University of Queensland research.

UQ School of Psychology researchers led a large-scale international meta-analysis on the extent to which leaders are seen as embodying a sense of ‘we’ and ‘us’ on leadership outcomes.

Dr Nik Steffens said leaders were found to be most effective when they engage in identity leadership.

“Identity leadership involves creating a sense of shared social identity, or a sense of ‘us-ness’, in the groups one leads, and then working to represent, advance, and embed that sense of shared social identity through policies and actions,” Dr Steffens said.

“We tend to focus on great leaders as individuals and what personal characteristics they have that make them different from other leaders – the great ‘I’.

“However, this research shows that effective leadership is not something about leaders and what makes them special as individuals but something that derives from social groups and a shared sense of ‘we’.

“Effective leaders are those who capture what is special about ‘us’ by embodying what ‘we’ stand for.

“This contrasts with our tendency to focus on the individual greatness of leaders and shows that ultimately what makes leaders effective and increases the likelihood of others responding enthusiastically to their leadership is the extent to which they embody our collective shared sense of ‘us’.”

Dr Steffens said this can be seen in the way many national leaders have responded to the COVID pandemic.

“New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern took a ‘we’re all in this together’ approach to leadership during the pandemic,” Dr Steffens said.

“Her empathy with the community was evident, and seen in the way that she gave press conferences from her living room in which she presented herself as a regular New Zealander who was dealing with the same challenges as all other citizens.

“Contrast the success of New Zealand’s coronavirus response with that of the UK – where Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings have created the impression that the rules for leaders are different to those for everybody else.

 “The differences in COVID numbers between New Zealand and the UK speak to the fact that prototypicality is far from a trivial determinant of leader outcomes.”

The research is published in Organizational Psychology Review (doi: 10.1177/2041386620962569).

Media: Dr Nik Steffens,, +61 7 3346 9555; Dani Nash, UQ Communications,, +61 7 3346 3035.