Tipultech logo

The social identity theory of leadership

Author: Dr Simon Moss


Over time, groups and organizations attempt to clarify the attitudes, values, beliefs, goals, and behaviors that typify their collective, called norms. Some members of organizations express opinions or exhibit behaviors that closely align with these norms, called prototypical individuals. According to the social identity theory of leadership, leaders who are prototypical are typically perceived as very effective and even charismatic. In contrast, leaders whose characteristics deviate from the norms of their group are often perceived as ineffective, even if they demonstrate some excellent qualities. Therefore, organizations tend to prefer leaders who are similar to a typical member rather than extraordinary. This theory emerged from social identity theory.

Mechanisms that may underpin the benefits of prototypical leaders

Several interrelated mechanisms underpin the benefits of prototypical leaders?-that is, leaders who epitomize the norms of their collective. First, if a leader is prototypical, members assume this person is motivated by the same needs as are they. They become more likely to trust the motives of this person (Hogg & van Knippenberg, 2003). Second, because of this trust, they will even accept leaders who espouse change. They perceive the suggestions or initiatives of these leaders as creative attempts to fulfill traditional values rather than as a means to challenge these traditions. That is, these leaders are perceived as cooperative (De Cremer, van Dijke, & Mayer, 2010).

Third, members assume that leaders who epitomize the organization will clarify the identity of this collective. Like members, these leaders will strive to differentiate the collective from rivals as well as highlight the merits of their organization. The social identity needs of individuals will be fulfilled (Hogg & van Knippenberg, 2003& see social identity theory). Fourth, because these leaders epitomize the group, and the group is usually perceived favorably, members assume prototypical leaders must also be desirable. Members attribute positive qualities to these leaders, such as charisma (Hogg, 2010).


The social identity theory of leadership deviates from some alternative models, such as leader categorization theory (Lord, Foti, & Philips, 1982& Lord & Maher, 1991). Specifically, individuals form schemas or beliefs about the defining qualities of effective leaders. According to leader categorization theory, only leaders whose characteristics align to these qualities, rather than match the characteristics that typify the organization, are assumed to be perceived as effective.

Empirical evidence

Consistent with the social identity theory of leadership, Fielding and Hogg (1997) revealed that leaders who seemed to match the prototypes of their group were perceived favorably by followers, especially by members who identified with this collective. Prototypical leaders are also perceived as more suited to their leadership position, more charismatic, and more persuasive than other leaders (Hains, Hogg, & Duck, 1997& Platow et al., 2006& see also Hogg, Hains, & Mason, 1998).

Emergence of leadership

According to the social identity theory of leadership, individuals who typify the norms of their organizations should be more likely to be selected as leaders than other employees. This proposition has been verified. That is, members whose attitudes, beliefs, and inclinations typify the organization are more likely to become leaders than other people (Hains, Hogg, & Duck, 1997).

Tolerance of shortfalls

When organizations do not fulfill their aspirations or goals, the leaders are not usually perceived as especially effective. However, as Giessner and van Knippenberg (2008) showed, if the leaders are regarded as prototypical, unfulfilled goals and aspirations do not undermine the reputation or status of the leader as appreciably.

Factors that moderate the validity of the social identity theory of leadership

Sacrifice for the team

Sometimes, leaders can violate prototypes of their group but still be perceived favorably, provided they demonstrate specific tendencies. To illustrate, leaders who violate prototypes are perceived as effective if they sacrifice their own interests to buttress the status and power of this collective (van Knippenberg & van Knippenberg, 2005).

Presumably, if leaders are not prototypical, members may be concerned these individuals will not pursue the interests of their group. However, sacrificial behavior seems to offset this concern.

Need for certainty, clarity, and closure

As Pierro, Cicero, Bonaiuto, van Knippenberg, and Kruglansk (2005) showed, people are especially likely to seek prototypical leaders when they feel uncertain. For example, when individuals exhibit a need for closure, and thus a yearning to seek clarity and certainty, prototypical leaders are especially likely to be perceived as effective (Pierro, Cicero, Bonaiuto, van Knippenberg, & Kruglansk, 2005). Presumably, prototypical leaders, because they embody the organization, are more likely to differentiate the organization from rivals. They will clarify the values and goals of this collective. Members are more likely to understand the standards and duties they are expected to fulfill, instilling clarity and certainty.

Intra-group contexts

According to Halevy, Berson, and Galinsky (2011), in some contexts, individuals prefer a leader who promulgates an inspiring vision of the future rather than epitomizes the norms of their group. That is, in certain situations, they may embrace someone who does not necessarily share the same opinions as everyone else in the collective but instead is inspirational, persuasive, and visionary. Specifically, Halevy, Berson, and Galinsky (2011) maintained this preference for a visionary, rather than prototypical, leader may be especially pronounced when the group experiences a crisis but are not focused on competing with rivals.

To illustrate, in one study, university students imagined how they would feel if the building in which they were located was burning. In one condition, they imagined themselves alone. In another condition, they imagined they escaped the building but their sorority house had been destroyed, representing a collective rather than personal crisis. Next, they read about two people who were vying to become the president of their sorority. One of these people was described as visionary. This person had formulated a vision of the future of this sorority, was committed to this organization, but nevertheless did not exhibit the most common traits of other members. The other person was described as prototypical of the sorority, with skills and qualities that typify other members of this organization. Finally, participants completed questions that assess which leader they prefer as well as other items that gauge their mood.

In general, participants preferred the visionary leader. This preference was especially pronounced after these students had read about the collective crisis. Furthermore, after they read about this collective crisis?-that is, the obliteration of their sorority house?-their mood improved as soon as they considered the visionary leader but deteriorated as soon as they considered the prototypical leader (Halevy, Berson, & Galinsky, 2011).

Another study was similar, except participants read a speech that demonstrated the leader was visionary or prototypical. The visionary leader referred to the hopes and possibility of the future for this organization, despite the crisis. The prototypical leader alluded to the qualities of this group and emphasized their connection to this organization, with sentences including "I know that you will help because, like me, you feel that this community is your home". In addition, participants specified the number of hours they would dedicate to volunteering to this organization. Again, visionary leaders were more likely than prototypical leaders to inspire participants to volunteer extensively.

In the final two studies, participants considered either a visionary or prototypical leader they had observed in the past, such as the coach of a sporting team or the conductor of an orchestra. They answered a series of additional questions, such as the degree to which they identified with this group, felt motivated and inspired by this leader, and felt the leader was motivated to help the group. Visionary leaders were more likely to promote identity with the group and to incite motivation, as well as seem motivated to help the group, than prototypical leaders. Furthermore, visionary leaders increased the likelihood that participants were willing to change their practices to enhance the group (Halevy, Berson, & Galinsky, 2011).

Conceivably, when a group experiences a crisis, the members recognize their existing norms will not fulfill their broader values and goals. Hence, they seek a leader who can offer an alternative set of beliefs and practices to override this shortfall, increasing their receptivity to visionary leaders. They become more inclined to commit to these alternative perspectives, increasing a sense of identity with the group and motivation (Halevy, Berson, & Galinsky, 2011). In contrast, in competitive contexts, a different need is evoked. In these intergroup contexts, individuals seek to differentiate themselves from other groups. They seek a leader who can reinforce the identity of their collective?-a goal that perhaps only prototypical members can fulfill.


In general, if individuals feel uncertain about their lives, they are more likely to appreciate incumbent leaders who are prototypical of their group. These leaders epitomize and, therefore, reinforce the norms and expectations of individuals.

However, if individuals feel uncertain about their lives, they seek any leader to clarify the norms and expectations. Consequently, they will gravitate to prospective leaders, even if these individuals are not prototypical of their group. In other words, after a leader has left, people who feel uncertain are not as averse to leaders who are not prototypical of their group. The importance of prototypical characteristics diminishes.

This possibility was proposed and validated by Rast, Gaffney, Hogg, and Crisp (2012). In one study, participants read about a prospective student leader. In particular, they read the manifesto of this leader. The leader maintained they were either prototypical of their group, with statements like ?I have deep ties in the community so I also want the college to make decisions that are the best for the students? or not prototypical of their group, with statements like ?Although I may not have deep ties in the community, I will still try to make decisions that are the best for the students?. In addition, participants indicated the extent to which they feel uncertain about their lives. Finally, they rated the degree to which they like this leader. Although participants preferred the prototypical leader, this preference decline as uncertainty increased. Overall, uncertain participants were likely to rate either leader favorably (see subjective uncertainty reduction theory).

Competitive circumstances and preference for extreme leaders

During more competitive times, such as before an election, people are more likely to endorse a leader who expresses more extreme attitudes, provided these opinions align to the group. For example, in one study, conducted by Chang, Turan, and Chow (2015), participants needed to decide who they would support in the upcoming primaries, to choose a leader for the Democrat party in the United States. All participants were affiliated with this party. To manipulate level of competition, some participants were told the subsequent contest between the Democrats and Republicans will be close& other participants were told the Democrats will prevail easily. Next, they read about three potential candidates. They were told the three candidates will vote in line with the party 93%, 65%, and 67% of the time respectively. Of the two candidates that will vote in line with the party only 63 or 67% of the time, one person will tend to vote more liberally and the other person will tend to vote more conservatively than the party line.

When the circumstances were not competitive, people tended to chose the candidate who will vote in line with the party 93% of the time, called the normative candidate. In contrast, when the circumstances were competitive, people tended to choose the candidate who will sometime vote more liberally than will the party in general, ccalled the extreme candidate. Subsequent studies showed that extreme candidates are perceived as more likely to epitomize the ideology of their party.

Presumably, when the setting is competitive, the need of individuals to differentiate themselves from their opponents soars. In competitive situations, people can be more emotive. Consequently, if individuals are perceived by colleagues as members of the opposition, they may be rejected or criticized harshly. To avoid this complication, they want to differentiate their own group from the opposition. They will, therefore, prefer leaders who are quite extreme and thus inflate the differences between their own group and other groups.

Reconciliation of the social identity theory of leadership and other theories of leadership

According to Halevy, Berson, and Galinsky (2011), the social identity theory of leadership can be reconciled with other models. For example, some leaders may typify the concerns and attitudes of members towards the existing state but demonstrate perspective about the future. These leaders share the groups norms, indicating they are prototypical, but nevertheless promulgate a more inspiring vision of the future, indicating they are visionary and charismatic (see charismatic leadership).

In addition, some people like to perceive their collective as insightful, innovative, and inspiring. Hence, visionary and charismatic leaders are assumed to typify their organization. Accordingly, leaders who are visionary may also be perceived as prototypical (Halevy, Berson, & Galinsky, 2011). Alternatively, members may be more likely to agree with a leader who seems prototypical. The plans of these leaders seem more compelling and thus inspiring . Leaders who are more prototypical may thus be perceived as visionary as well (Halevy, Berson, & Galinsky, 2011).

These arguments could also explain some other interesting findings, reported by Mueller, Goncalo, and Kamdar (2011). These researchers show that people who are creative are not perceived as potential leaders. However, after the prototype of a charismatic leader is activated, this negative relationship between creativity and leadership potential diminishes. Presumably, creative people express solutions that diverge from the norms and standards& they are, therefore, not regarded as leaders. Yet, once the prototype of a charismatic leader is induced, people realize that creativity could enhance the capacity of these leaders to fulfill these norms and standards.


Chang, J. W., Turan, N., & Chow, R. M. (2015). A desire for deviance: The influence of leader normativeness and inter-group competition on group member support. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 56, 36-49. doi: 10.1016/j.jesp.2014.08.006

De Cremer, D., van Dijke, M., & Mayer, D. M. (2010). Cooperating when ?you? and ?I? are treated fairly: The moderating role of leader prototypicality. Journal of Applied Psychology, 95, 1121-1133.

Fielding, K. S., & Hogg, M. A. (1997). Social identity, self-categorization, and leadership: A field study of small interactive groups. Group Dynamics: Theory, Research, and Practice, 1, 39-51.

Giessner, S. R., & van Knippenberg, D. (2008). "License to Fail": Goal definition, leader group prototypicality, and perceptions of leadership effectiveness after leader failure. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 105, 14-35.

Hains, S. C., Hogg, M. A., & Duck, J. M. (1997). Self-categorization and leadership: Effects of group prototypicality and leader stereotypicality. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 23, 1087-1100.

Halevy, N., Berson, Y., & Galinsky, A. D. (2011). The mainstream is not electable: when vision triumphs over representativeness in leader emergence and effectiveness . Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 37, 893-904. doi:10.1177/0146167211402836

Haslam, S.A. & Reicher, S.D. (2007). Identity entrepreneurship and the consequences of identity failure: The dynamics of leadership in the BBC Prison Study. Social Psychology Quarterly 70, 125-147.

Hogg, M. A. (2001). A social identity theory of leadership. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 5, 184-200.

Hogg, M. A., Hains, S. C., & Mason, I. (1998). Identification and leadership in small groups: Salience, frame of reference, and leader stereotypicality effects on leader evaluations. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75, 1248-1263.

Hogg, M. A. (2008). Social identity theory of leadership. In C. L. Hoyt, G. R. Goethals, & D. R. Forsyth (Eds.), Leadership at the crossroads. Volume 1: Leadership and psychology (pp. 62-77). Westport, CT: Praeger.

Hogg, M. A. (2010). Influence and Leadership. In S. T. Fiske, D. T. Gilbert, & L. Gardner (Eds.), Handbook of social psychology (5th ed., pp. 1167-1207). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley.

Hogg, M. A., & van Knippenberg, D. (2003). Social identity and leadership processes in groups. In M. P. Zanna (Ed.), Advances in experimental social psychology (Vol. 35, pp. 1-52). San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

Lord, G. R., & Maher, K. J. (1991). Leadership and information processing. . Boston: Routledge.

Lord, R., & Hall, R. (2003). Identity, leadership categorization, and leadership schema. . In D. v. Knippenberg & M. A. Hogg (Eds.), Leadership and power: Identity processes in groups and organizations (pp. 48-64). London: Sage.

Mueller, J. S., Goncalo, J. A., & Kamdar, D. (2011). Recognizing creative leadership: Can creative idea expression negatively relate to perceptions of leadership potential? Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 47, 494-498.

Peirro, A., Cicero, L., Bonaiuto, M., van Knippenberg, D., & Kruglanski, A. W. (2005). Leader group prototypicality and leadership effectiveness: The moderating role of need for cognitive closure. . The Leadership quarterly, 16, 503-516.

Peirro, A., Cicero, L., Bonaiuto, M., van Knippenberg, D., & Kruglanski, A. W. (2007). Leader group prototypicality and resistance to organisational change: The moderating role of need for closure and team identification. . TPM-Testing, Psychometrics, Methodology in Applied Psychology, 14, 27-40.

Platow, M. J., & van Knippenberg, D. (2001). A social identity analysis of leadership endorsement: The effects of leader ingroup prototypicality and distributive intergroup fairness. . Personality and social psychology bulletin, 11, 1508-1519.

Platow, M., van Knippenberg, D., Haslam, S., van Knippenberg, B., & Spears, R. (2006). A special gift we bestow on you for being representative of us: Considering leader charisma from a self categorization perspective. British Journal of Social Psychology, 45, 303-320.

Rast, D. E., Gaffney, A. M., Hogg, M. A., & Crisp, R. J. (2012). Leadership under uncertainty: When leaders who are non-prototypical group members can gain support. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 48, 646-653.

Reicher, S., Haslam, S. A., & Hopkins, N. (2005). Social identity and the dynamics of leadership: Leaders and followers as collaborative agents in the transformation of social reality. Leadership Quarterly, 16, 547-568.

van Knippenberg, D., van Knippenberg, B., De Cremer, D., & Hogg, M. A. (2004). Leadership, self, and identity: A review and research agenda. Leadership Quarterly, 15, 825-856.

Academic Scholar?
Join our team of writers.
Write a new opinion article,
a new Psyhclopedia article review
or update a current article.
Get recognition for it.

Last Update: 7/18/2016