The psychology of going against the grain: what makes an effective leader?

Assumption College Undergraduate

In our last blog post, we discussed Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a man whose call for change through nonviolence is the foundation for his legacy of leadership.

There are many quality traits that contribute to becoming an effective leader. But before you can lead a team, a company, a movement, or a nation, you must understand the organization.

Leadership Industrial and Organizational Psychology is defined by the American Psychological Association as: the scientific study of human behavior in organizations and the workplace, focusing on deriving principles of individual, group and organizational behavior and applying this knowledge to the solution of problems.

Bachelor’s of Arts in psychology students can learn more about this topic through the Assumption course PSY 286: Organizational and Industrial Psychology. Through this course, students cover topics in the field of industrial psychology such as personal issues, motivation and satisfaction, communication, and most importantly, leadership.

There are many theories of what makes a good leader. One often noted as the single most studied and applied method worldwide is transformational leadership.

Political historian, James MacGregor Burns first introduced this concept in his 1978 book, Leadership. In his theory, there are four components that make up a good leader:

  • Charisma or idealized influence
  • Inspirational motivation
  • Intellectual stimulation, or the concept of going against the grain
  • Individualized consideration or individualized attention

One of those components, intellectual stimulation, calls for leaders to challenge the status quo and encourage creativity among followers. This concept is similar to one presented by Dr. King in his 1963 speech at Western Michigan University: the concept of “creative maladjustment”.

Today psychologists define being “socially adjusted” as fitting in, agreeing with social norms, and functioning well in the environment you are in.

“Everybody passionately seeks to be well-adjusted,” Dr. King explicitly shared in one of his sermons, “but there are some things … to which men of good will must be maladjusted.”

In both Burns’ theory of intellectual stimulation and King’s theory of creative maladjustment, we see the common theme that a good leader must be unafraid to challenge the status quo and inspire others to do the same — promote creative thinking and go against the grain.

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