Political Psychology and the
Risks of Leadership
Harold Lasswell contributed to leadership studies both through his work on the political psychology of leaders and followers, and also in his analysis of how the skills and resources of political elites enable some leaders to rise over others. Although his work was more often termed “elite studies, ” he addressed the issues that still preoccupy the field of leadership studies. Writing in the dark years of the Depression, the radicalization of interwar Europe, and the emergence of the Cold War, Lasswell was particularly sensitive to the risks of various leadership trajectories. Although his classification of leadership styles differs from the categories that are in vogue today, his analysis provides important insight into the risks of contemporary prescriptive models of leadership, and can help to advance the study of leadership in the 21 st century. In order to go forward, we can go back to Lasswell's conception of the risks of leadership.
Any reading of the contemporary discoveries in leadership studies would show that Lasswell was far ahead of his time in both outlining the framework for studying leadership and developing psychological theory for it. As early as the 1930s, Lasswell conceived of leadership as encompassing the leader-follower relationship, which is now known under the trendy acronym of LMX— “leadership-member exchange. ” As early as the 1920s, in his work on political and policy appeals, Lasswell examined the emotional and symbolic bonds that form between leaders and followers (Lasswell, 1927a, 1927b/1971,1932). In his voluminous work on political elites, also predating the bulk of leadership studies, Lasswell highlighted the skills that permit certain leaders to rise above others in varying circumstances. Indeed, as we show in this chapter, Lasswell's insistence that every leader-follower relationship entails one sort of exchange, whether material or emotional, is the key to clarifying the current confusion with respect to so-called transactional and transformational leadership.