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The Neuroscience of Leadership: How to Inspire Your ‘Followers’

This week, Pascal Molenberghs of Monash University shares some important insights about how inspirational messages are received and shows what leaders can do to get their messages across.

When people talk about successful leaders they often focus on the personal and physical characteristics of those individuals. Great leaders are tall, good communicators, friendly, decisive, good looking, have charisma, etc.

However, according to the social identity theory of leadership (Haslam et al., 2011; Hogg & van Knippenberg, 2012), the focus should not be on the leaders themselves but on their ‘followers’. Successful leaders are only successful if they are indeed perceived as successful through the eyes of their followers. If nobody follows the leader, then there is no leadership.

According to this theory, effective leaders are those who can conceptualise a group-oriented vision of the future that their followers can identify with. This is often achieved by:

  1. making salient the role of followers as key elements of future collective success
  2. making personal sacrifices for the group
  3. engaging in the rhetorical use of ‘we’ and ‘us’ to encourage followers to see themselves as involved in the leader’s vision

A nice example of this are the inspirational slogans used in Barack Obama’s successful 2008 presidential campaign: “Change we can believe in” and “Yes we can”. These were intended to create an inspiring group-oriented vision of the future that American voters could identify with.

Non-effective leaders, on the other hand, are characterised by self-interest, such that the leader focuses on his or her authority and personal role in achieving success. These types of leaders typically appear to be more self-aggrandising, aggressive, and arrogant, and are more inclined to use self-referencing that includes singular pronouns such as “I” and “me”.

In support of this theory, a recent study that analysed the Australian election speeches of Prime Ministerial candidates of the last 43 elections since 1901, found that political leaders who more frequently used the words “we” or “us” (rather than “I” or “me”) than their opponents, won the election 80% of the time (Steffens & Haslam, 2013).

Does this mean, then, that if leaders simply use the words “we” and “us” as much as possible in their messages they will automatically be seen as inspirational? Well, it is a bit more complicated than that.

In the case of Obama, for example, it was apparent that not everyone was inspired by his vision of “us” as evidenced by fierce opposition from Republicans, leading to a temporary government shutdown in October 2013. Social identity theory also states that it’s important for a follower to identify with the group in order for an inspirational message to be seen as inspirational.

According to social identity theory, people strive to have a positive social identity, and they achieve this, in part, through positive comparisons with competing out-groups (Tajfel and Turner, 1979).” Therefore, if an inspirational message comes from a leader that is perceived as an out-group leader, that message will not be processed in the same way as the same message being presented by an in-group leader.

In a recent brain imaging study we found support for this view (Molenberghs et al., 2015). Participants who were strong labor or liberal supporters were presented with inspirational and non-inspirational messages while undergoing functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI). We told participants that the messages were made by either Labor or Liberal leaders and they had to rate how inspirational they found the messages. Unbeknown to participants, identical messages were presented as coming from labor and liberal leaders across participants. If participants would rate the messages in an objective way, they should rate the messages as equally inspirational, regardless if they came from an in-group or out-group leader.

The behavioural results showed this was not the case and that there was a strong in-group bias. Participants rated identical messages as much more inspirational if they believed they came from an in-group leader. For example, a labor supporter rated messages as much more inspirational if he or she believed they were made by a labor (versus liberal) leader. The same was true for liberal supporters. Interestingly the brain imaging results provided some key insights in explaining why this was the case.

When comparing the brain activation in followers during observing inspirational messages from the in-group leader versus non-inspirational messages from the in-group leader, we found more activation in brain areas involved in processing information (Figure A). However, when looking at the same comparison (inspirational minus non-inspirational) for messages from out-group leaders, no increase in brain activation was seen in these areas (Figure B).

This is a striking result. Remember that the messages were identical for in-group and out-group leaders. The inspirational messages from out-group leaders were falling on deaf ears (as evidenced by the lack of increase in brain activation), while, if people believed the inspirational messages came from an in-group leader, they were processing them much more than the non-inspirational messages. Interestingly, the same areas as in Figure A were more active for non-inspirational messages from out-group leaders. This tells us that participants were focusing more on inspirational messages from in-group leaders as well as non-inspirational messages from out-group leaders.

These results provide strong support for the social identity theory of leadership. Through subjective processing of identical information, participants made sure that their group was seen in a better light than the competing out-group.

The key message for aspirational leaders is this: If you want to make sure that your inspirational messages don’t fall on deaf ears, make sure that you create a vision and group identity that your followers can identify with so that you will be seen as an in-group leader. More importantly, focus on creating the best outcome for the whole group rather than just the best outcome for yourself.


Haslam, S. A., Reicher, S. D., & Platow, M. J. 2011. The new psychology of leadership: Identity, influence and power. London: Psychology Press.

Hogg, M. A., van Knippenberg, D., & Rast, D. E. 2012. The social identity theory of leadership: Theoretical origins, research findings, and conceptual developments. European Review of Social Psychology, 23: 258-304.

Steffens, K. N., & Haslam, S. A. 2013. Power through “us”: Leaders’ use of we-referencing language predicts election victory. PloS ONE, 8(10): e77952.

Molenberghs, P., Prochilo, G., Steffens, N.K., Zacher, H., & Haslam, S.A. (2015). The neuroscience of inspirational leadership: The importance of collective-oriented language and shared group membership.Journal of Management, DOI: 10.1177/0149206314565242.

Tajfel, H., & Turner, J. C. 1979. An integrative theory of intergroup conflict. In W. Austin & S. Worchel (Eds.), The social psychology of intergroup relations: 33-48. Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole.

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