Making ‘us’ better: Why and how building social identity has been critical to successful leadership during the COVID-19 pandemic (and beyond)
Alex Haslam, Professor, University of Queensland
Our recent review in Social Issues and Policy Review examines the successes and failures of different leaders during the pandemic and organizes these around five policy priorities related to what we have called the ‘5Rs’ of identity leadership. There are three core components to this model—Reflecting, Representing, and Realising—that involve leaders understanding and then working with the groups they are trying to lead. These are bookended with Readying that involves creating solid foundations for identity leadership, and Reinforcing that follows through to ensure that this is sustained over time.
Shared social identity needs to be a focus for priorities of identity leadership (the 5Rs) in a crisis. Not least, this is because it motivates engaged followership on the part of citizens.
Readying focuses on appreciating the importance of there being a sense of shared social identity within a given community or society prior to the onset of any crisis. This is critical because social identity is not only a gateway to the social capital needed to tackle collective challenges but also provides a platform for people’s resilience and fortitude in the face of those challenges. Of course, one of the interesting things about a crisis like a pandemic is that it often serves to create a sense of shared identity that is a powerful resource in itself. Nevertheless, when they were hit by COVID-19, countries and communities that already had a strong sense of psychological unity, and that had leaders who recognised its importance (e.g., Canada, Denmark), were much better placed to harness (rather than squander) this sense of togetherness in the process of mounting a concerted response.
The second component, Reflecting, involves leaders taking stock of social identity— who we are, what we are about, and what we want to become—in ways that allow them to achieve collective power by speaking to and for the groups they want to lead. Leaders who make the crisis “all about me” or who treat (sub)groups as if they are a problem (rather than part of the solution) are setting themselves, and their communities, up for failure.
Building on this, Representing involves leaders ensuring that their actions serve to unite and promote the group rather than divide it. Solidarity and support will evaporate if it looks as though there is one rule for the elite and another for the hoi polloi. In Britain, for example, compliance with government edicts plummeted after Boris Johnson failed to reprimand his chief advisor, Dominic Cummings, for violating lockdown restrictions.
Fourth, Realising centres on implementing policies that create the lived experience of being ‘in this together.’ Amongst other things, this means that leaders need to reach out to those who are most in need of support, and who would otherwise be most vulnerable. Here too, explanation, empathy and support will generally be a better way for leaders to shape behaviour than confrontation, coercion and blame. This is because they signal shared ingroup identity and hence put those leaders in a better position to harness the group’s power.
Finally, Reinforcing requires leaders to create structures that make the experience of ‘us’ an enduring one. Speaking to this, countries have generally weathered the ongoing storm of the pandemic much better to the extent that their leaders have provided generous long-term support to sections of their community who continue to struggle with its effects (e.g., frontline health workers, the unemployed, older adults). Indeed, if leaders fail to address the inequality that COVID has created, there is a real risk that, over time, unity and solidarity will give way to social division and conflict. At the same time, the more successful leaders have been at driving infection down and holding society together, the more charismatic those leaders have been seen to be, and the more support they have secured (not least at the ballot box). In this, then, we see that charisma is not a god-given resource that individuals with a strong leader identity possess, but a group-given reward that is bestowed on those who do good identity leadership.
Critically, these 5Rs are relevant not just to the management of COVID-19, but to crisis management and leadership more generally. So let’s hope that our leaders take them on board as we continue to work through the pandemic and before we are hit by the next global crisis—whatever form it happens to take. Events of the last 12 months make it clear that our collective future depends on them doing so.