Social Identity and Effective leadership

I had some insight into why I shy away from leadership within local churches today. I was reading the latest Scientific American on the train this morning, which focuses on “New Insights into Leadership,” and was drawn to some incisive comments by the authors (Reicher, Haslam and Platow) on the nature of leadership and the importance of social identity for effective leadership.

They observed,

“… leaders are most effective when they can induce followers to see themselves as group members and to see the group’s interest as their own”

“When a shared social identity exists, individuals who can best represent that identity will have the most influence over the group’s members and be the most effective leaders. That is, the best leaders are prototypical of the group – they not only seem to belong to it but also exemplify what makes the group distinct from … rival groups”

“…the most effective leaders define their group’s social identity to fit with the policies they would promote”

“… the development of a shared social identity is the basis of influential and creative leadership.”

This was rather timely. I’ve been mulling over the importance of identity quite a bit lately, particularly in terms of its importance for social and religious movements, and this article has really crystallized some of my thoughts.

I now realize the problem is this, my identity as a “missional” Christian is far more important to me than my identity as a “local” Christian. I have only been a “local” a few years, spend the bulk of my waking hours elsewhere and have very little commitment to a village mindset. That is not to say I don’t have local friends, I do, but our friendships are only rarely based us simply being “locals”. More often they are based on shared interests and our geographic proximity is somewhat secondary. I can see I could be drawn into a more local Christian identity if more local Christians were missional but that is precisely the problem, few are. Few are interested in even discussing missional approaches to Christianity, let alone identifying with them. Few are actively engaged with the local community beyond the walls of the church, let alone doing risky mission amongst them. In this situation I have gravitated towards a more parachurch way of doing church.

This creates problems for me when I contemplate leadership within “local” church. I have doubts about how effectively I can lead people I only tentatively identify with on the basis of a broader Christian identity, a broader identity that equally encompasses Christians in Africa, Asia and America, or on the basis of a secondary Christian identity, as a “local” Christian. Hmmm. I just realized I have been using the word “them” rather than “we”. Says it all really. I find a shared social identity, a sense of belonging, is elusive. Thus I hesitate to lead, even when leaders are sorely required. And I should add I feel rather torn by this because I actually do want to belong.

7 thoughts on “Social Identity and Effective leadership

  1. Important reflection, Matt. Leading a group with whom you have no sense of connection or belonging can only be entered on a clear direction from God, IMO.
    …the desire to belong is so very strong for a very good reason–and we must be very discerning in how we fulfill that desire.
    Praying for you, brother.


  2. A clear direction, yes that’s what I’ve been waiting and praying on Peggy. I thought I had a clear message back a bit over a week ago now but then got another one that conflicted with it, sending me back into waiting and praying mode. At least the question is becoming clearer even if the answer isn’t.


  3. It is always best to have a very clear picture of the question…and I have found that a good deal of waiting in my life has been so that this very thing can take place…so that I understand the answer!
    Many times, imo, we do not understand what God is saying because we have not asked the proper questions 😉
    Praying with you for clarity….


  4. Your missional church intuitions seem very Mennonite to me. The Mennonites here don’t often see themselves with a national identity. They make the “us” “them” distinctions with respect to themselves and other evangelicals and Christians of what you call “local” persuasion. “Local community” is defined by communities to which their geographically local community is linked to (economically, spiritually or relationally) whether it is the church on another continent or not. There are various reasons for this, among them being that the group identity emerged in a shared history of expulsion from various nations.


  5. Well, I have been influenced by Mennonites amongst others, that’s true. And my national identity is secondary to my Christian identity, that’s true to. On the other hand, its precisely because I do see a local community identity as important for having a local church identity that I struggle with this. That local churches don’t engage with local community much, that they rely on “come to us” approaches over “go to them” approaches, that is difficult for me to work with.


  6. OK I’ll bite- as one training for (18 mnths to go) full time ordained ministry I believe firmly that we should be encouragers, equippers and releasers of folk into a missional mindset… we need leaders who both by example and teaching boot people out of their comfort zones and get them participating in the real world….engaging with non-Christian friends ( for some this may mean a voyage of re-discovery)- participating in hobbies and living life to the full….
    Is it painful?
    You bet!!!


  7. Yes, well I had a chat with one of the pastors today about where I’m at. Basically I see I need to worth this through with them first. I hear you Sally, that’s one of the voices I’ve been hearing.


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