Leaders gain our admiration. Often it is because they give us direction and focus. Or because they give us meaning to our daily work. We look up to leaders who speak about their vision (example: Jeff Weiner on Compassionate Leadership) ; we watch movies about leader’s journeys (see example in Steve Jobs, The Founder, etc.); we place leaders under the microscope to learn about successes and failures (Uber CEO).
We are surrounded by proclamations of leadership.
But, do we think enough about why we need a leader?
When organizations choose leaders, as much as they are looking for someone with the right experiences and character, they also look, often without knowing it, for someone safe, reliable, and dependable to fill the role.
Why is this? Elliot Aronson, one of the most influential social psychologists of the 20th century, proposed that we are psychologically wired to look for group cohesion and interactions with others. Later, psychologists built on this idea to propose that people need a sense of psychological safety within groups, so that they are comfortable with being, and expressing, themselves.
What’s more, when a group does not have a clearly defined task, the group’s survival is jeopardized. Think: What is an NBA team without the goal of playing in the Finals? What is Coca-Cola without its first product?
To ensure the group’s sustainability, we gravitate towards the need to establish psychological safety. The way we select a competent leader is one of our favorite ways to assure us that the group is protected and safe. In a sense, task competence of the leader is secondary to his/her representation as a source of safety to the group.
This phenomenon is especially apparent when the group faces a high level of ambiguity. From looking up to our parents as children, to internalizing motivation at work through the leader’s words, most of us are well-versed with the process of selecting a leader.
When we are uncertain about what we are supposed to do or what the group is expected to achieve, we turn to the task of selecting a leader to find familiarity.
Let’s look at an example of selecting a leader to provide a group with a sense of safety.
In December of 1955, the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) was formed to launch a one-day bus boycott in response to Rosa Parks’ resistance to bus segregation in Montgomery, Alabama. Martin Luther King, Jr., at the age of 26, was committed to his career as a minister, thus, not eager to be a leader of the boycott.
While other members of the MIA, who had been exposed to life-threatening events and arrests because of their political activism, King had no record of public offenses. King’s vocational journey epitomized the idea of safety. He was young and able. He was committed to his work as a minister, which was an honorable role that taught religious beliefs and led community services. He had not been involved in the social and political scene.
As the MIA was about to disrupt the socio-political landscape of America, the group elected Dr. King as a leader, manifesting an underlying need for safety. During the tumultuous time of American history, King became a seminal figure in America’s civil rights movement, representing the oppressed group’s desire for safety and reliability.
The idea of needing psychological safety in our leader speaks to an unspoken process of how groups behave. This is not to say that we shouldn’t care about the skills and experiences that the leader brings to the group, but it is to shine a light to an underlying, yet powerful, influence in our decision-making process when we choose a leader.
When we think about selecting our leaders, we should take a step back and look at the elements in our environment. Do we have a clear goal to achieve as a group? Do we feel safe to contribute our thoughts and feelings to the group? Are we selecting a leader just to make us feel more comfortable in a chaotic time? Does the group have a clear vision and mission to guide the process of leadership selection?