5 things I learned about the psychology of leadership

People working around a table
Amanda Cupido
Amanda Cupido (Journalism ’12, MPS, Psychology of Leadership) is a communications advisor for World Vision International, the Innovator in Residence for podcasting at the Toronto Public Library and a journalism instructor at Seneca College. She is also the author of Let’s Talk Podcasting. Amanda sits on the Ryerson University Alumni Association’s Board of Directors.

I recently graduated with a Master of Professional Studies in the Psychology of Leadership from Pennsylvania State University. I spent five years plugging away at the degree, but I enjoyed every minute of it; I found the course material fascinating. Here are some of my biggest takeaways.

5. Leadership is a process

There is no such thing as a “good” leader or a “bad” leader. There’s also no moment where someone completes their leadership journey. Leadership is a process and continues to change based on three main components: the followers, the environment, and the leader. This is why a teacher (a traditional “leader” in a classroom) might be loved by some students and hated by others, all in the same class. No two followers have the same needs from their leader. It’s also why a teacher may be horrible in a primary setting but thrive as a university professor. Environments change how a leader is received. Finally, it’s why a teacher may evolve throughout the school year and become more (or less) effective as time passes. Their leadership style may shift, which will impact the way they act and how students respond.

I feel the potential for growth as a leader is both exciting and overwhelming.

4. Understanding the root of resistance is key for implementing new ideas

I always prided myself on having a strong sense of emotional intelligence and empathy, but I was challenged to have a deeper understanding of my colleagues — specifically when pitching new or innovative ideas. When people are resistant to new ideas, it’s important to try and get to the root of why they’re taking that stance. It usually comes down to one of three reasons: 

  • They don’t believe they can play a role in making the new idea come to fruition (ultimately, they need a confidence boost.) 
  • They don’t believe the idea will work (they need to be shown evidence that this is, indeed, the best way forward.) 
  • They disagree on a moral level (there’s not much you can do to change someone’s moral stance.) 

I put this learning into action immediately. Being able to identify the root of resistance has helped me successfully implement new ideas, even in legacy organizations that were known for being set in their ways.

3. People accept jobs for different reasons — and it’s important to take note

People typically accept jobs for one of the following reasons:

  • For stability: the financial gain it is the best way for them to make ends meet
  • For validation: the position is needed for their professional growth and/or for optics
  • For affinity: they love the work and consider their role as part of their identity

If you take the time to determine the category you fall into (and have an educated guess about why your colleagues have taken on their respective roles), you will have a better understanding of the group dynamics at your workplace. Knowing why people show up to work can help explain the source of tension, or how to motivate employees.

For instance, a founder of a startup may find themselves frustrated with employees who don’t go above and beyond in showing their commitment to the organization. Or, a leader may choose to give an eager employee a raise, but if the employee is there for validation, they’ll likely be more motivated by receiving a title change that alludes to having higher seniority.

2. Groupthink and conformity are real problems

Cohesiveness within a team is great, but sometimes it can lead to “groupthink” — where teams (or even entire organizations) are unable to effectively challenge ideas. It can even spiral into dysfunctional decision making. Sometimes this can be triggered by a company’s structure, or stressful environments, but at its core, it’s a psychological phenomenon where people feel compelled to agree with a group in order to avoid rocking the boat.

The Asch experiment is a great example of that. Although it was conducted decades ago, I find it fascinating to see how easily people conform. My jaw drops every time I watch this.  

One way to combat groupthink and conformity is to choose someone in every meeting to play “devil’s advocate” — their role is to push back on every idea that is brought forward (even if they think it’s a good one)! Each meeting, the role is reassigned. Alternatively, leaders can encourage teams to split into sub-groups and then come back together with one idea from each small group, which will at least (hopefully) bring forward several different ideas that can be weighed against each other.

1. Self-awareness is more than just knowing your strengths and weaknesses

You can never know too much about yourself. Many organizations will encourage teams to do a personality assessment like the Enneagram or Insights Discovery. I find these really helpful as a starting point to get a holistic view of your personality and how you fit in with the rest of your team. But there are so many layers to leadership; it is helpful to get to know yourself in more nuanced ways. For instance, by doing more specific quizzes to determine where you stand on the individualism-collectivism scale. Or your emotional intelligence. Or general self-efficacy. Another popular one for leaders is the Big Five Personality Test.

Yes, I’ve done all of these (and more)! They’ve helped me develop a personal leadership development plan and inspired me to track how I’m growing. Not to say quizzes are the only way to do that, but it’s a start. Even just being aware of some of the qualities researchers are studying (as outlined in these quizzes) is beneficial when it comes to reflecting on yourself and determining your leadership style.


Amanda Cupido (Journalism ’12, MPS, Psychology of Leadership) is a communications advisor for World Vision International, the Innovator in Residence for podcasting at the Toronto Public Library and a journalism instructor at Seneca College. She is also the author of Let’s Talk Podcasting. Amanda sits on the Ryerson University Alumni Association’s Board of Directors.

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