What Makes Groups Turn On Their Leaders?

Think of any power structure where a leader sits on the top.

The leader rules for as long as her rule is considered legitimate.

That word, legitimacy, can mean many different things. The earliest forms were divinity. Those that ruled connected themselves to divinity. Legitimacy can also come from power (physical), wisdom (age), skill (meritocracy) or popularity (democracy).

Legitimacy is sustained unless three things happen. One, your source of legitimacy is called into doubt. Two, the majority of the group stops believing those with power are using it for the benefit of the group. Three, there is clearly a better option. That better option is what stops the poor in most countries attempting a violent overthrow of their government right now.

Discontent can simmer for years without coming to the boil. Once the opportunity arises (often strength in numbers), a rebellion can be unstoppable. At this point either the leader has to ride it out, cave to the group’s demands, or go.

Many new leaders do the very worst thing. They try to make many changes to establish their legitimacy. This invites the group to rebel against them.

This is the danger of recruiting an outsider without clear, strength, popularity, or visible skill and asking them to determine the future for the group that consider her a stranger. The moment the leader proposes an idea the group doesn’t like, they will stop believing she looks out for the group. The new leader won’t be able to lead, only to follow what the group wants.

If you’re new to a group and don’t have the respected power, wisdom, popularity, or clear skill, you’re in a very real danger of the group organising against you. You need to establish legitimacy before you can lead. That usually means becoming popular.

Or, in practice, spending the first few weeks – perhaps a month or more – participating in every discussion you can, reaching out to members to get their feedback, asking members what they want, and gaining their credibility before taking decisive action.

More and more of us will be leading social groups of different kinds going forward. We’ll lead our friends, family, companies, communities, members, and customers. We need to get really good at establishing legitimacy (and helping our replacements to establish their legitimacy too).

If you’re not willing to do that, you’re probably not ready to lead.


  1. Richard Millington says:

    Do all these posts show up as from you @HAWK ?

    I feel like you’re stealing my identity!

    Expect war.

  2. Sarah Hawk says:

    Let’s just call it an upgrade. :wink:

  3. Richard Millington says:

    Expect a reckoning.

  4. Sarah Hawk says:

    I’m happy to fight to the death, but let’s just wait until after the next article publishes.

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