How Leaders Fall: Exploring the Process of Leadership Destabilization

Maskor, M. (University of Queensland), Steffens, N. K. (University of Queensland), Haslam, S. A. (University of Queensland)

History presents a variety of examples where leaders have reached the pinnacle of influence only to suddenly fall from grace and lose the support of their followership. Such examples suggest that effective leadership is not necessarily enduring and can be destabilised. However, the mechanisms underlying leadership destabilisation remain relatively underexplored. Using the identity approach to leadership, we theorised that leadership destabilisation occurs when followers are influenced by interventions that portray the leader as (a) unrepresentative, (b) regressive, (c) divisive, and (d) destructive to the group’s identity.  An open-ended survey was then administered to inform the development of this model. 512 participants were recruited via Prolific Academic to generate ideas for how effective leadership could be destabilised. The thematic analysis identified six primary themes comprising 16 subthemes. The most common suggestion concerns undermining collective goals (f = 247), followed by undermining followers’ expectations of the leader (f = 234), disrupting the leader’s authority (f = 186), undermining the group’s activities (f = 133), loss of followership (f = 122), and the leader’s incongruence with group values (f = 103).  The findings highlight the role of collective goals, power, and followership in the process of leadership destabilisation. Altogether, we now have some initial insights into the nature of leadership destabilisation that will guide future empirical attempts to provide more nuanced understanding of this neglected topic.

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Social Identity and Applied Psychology