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What Improv, Ubuntu, and Covid-19 have taught me about leadership

David Murphy, British Psychological Society President 2019-2020, gave his Presidential Address at the online conference.

28 July 2020

I've served in BPS voluntary roles continuously for over 20 years, so have attended my fair share of Presidential addresses, although I never imagined giving one myself. I could also never understand why it was left until the end of the President's term of office. However, as I was preparing my address, the penny dropped. By the time a President reaches the conference hall lectern (or in my case the webcam!), they have been delivering their address through their actions for a whole year. These few words are just the coda. In the words of Mark Twain, 'Actions speak louder than words, but not nearly so often'.  

If you saw me delivering the address, sitting alone in the little box in the corner of your computer screen, or if you are reading these words now, you might think that somehow I had got to this lofty perch solely as a result of my own efforts. Indeed, it's not uncommon for leaders to ardently believe that myth themselves.

It's all too common to pull out an extract of someone's life and look at it in isolation, but this gives a distorted picture. Before I started my address I went back to some of the many people who share any achievements of 'my' Presidential year. Firstly, my mother, who has always modelled kindness and concern for others, despite battling severe mental health problems at different points, including during the first few months of my life which we spent together in a psychiatric hospital. Also, my father-in-law, who passed away at the very start of my Presidential year. He came to this country as an immigrant from Pakistan in the early 1960s. He faced hardships throughout his life but always modelled dignity and respect for everyone, whatever their station. I had the privilege of travelling with him to many parts of the world. He showed the same respect to members of parliament as he did to people begging on the street.


Some years ago, I was privileged to have an opportunity to learn about the African concept of Ubuntu from Archbishop Desmond Tutu. As a student in the 1980s, I had been involved in the anti-apartheid movement and, since then, 'Arch' as he asked to be called, had been a hero to me. He explained that Ubuntu is a term common to almost all of the Bantu languages; in both Xhosa and Zulu it can be defined through the proverb 'umuntu, ngumuntu, ngbantu', or 'a person is only a person through other persons'. 'Arch' explained that 'we are human through relationships, we become human through relationships. We are made for the delicate network of inter-relationships; the completely self-sufficient person is "sub-human". I need you to be you, in order to for me to be me.'

This 'delicate network of inter-relationships' is also widely recognised in the natural world. My first degree was in Psychology and Zoology (I was as indecisive then as I am now!), and my early experience of studying ecology was hugely beneficial. When any change occurs in one species, an ecologist's first response is not to look at it in isolation but to look at changes within its environment and ecosystem. Although my clinical psychology training at the Maudsley focused almost exclusively on cognitive behavioural approaches, in my subsequent clinical career in physical health, where the system comprising of relatives and health professionals is readily accessible, I also drew on systemic approaches that I trained in later.

Many years on, when I was director of the clinical psychology programme at the University of Oxford, I had a framed picture of the coastal redwood trees in California in my office. Students must have got fed up of hearing me using it as an analogy for recognising the importance of support from others. The coastal redwood is the largest on planet earth, standing at over 400 feet, and also one of the oldest at up to 3500 years of age. Despite its elevated stature, its roots descend to a relatively shallow depth of about 12 feet, which seems inherently instable. However, the secret of the redwood's success is that its roots grow out to a diameter of 100 feet and are interconnected with those of many other trees. This provides not only stability, but also the opportunity to share water and nutrients between trees. When I visited the forests where they grow naturally, a park ranger told me, to my surprise, that I could have found some in the UK. However, the coastal redwood grown on its own will only grow to a fraction of its usual height, will be pale in colour and is unlikely to live very long.

We are all connected and rely on others, just like the redwood trees. It's just that some people don't acknowledge it. As Mungi Ngomane, Arch's granddaughter, and author of the 2019 book Everyday Ubuntu, said recently in an interview 'The self-made man is a myth, I've never yet met anyone who gave birth to themselves!'


I've been studying and teaching about leadership in one form or another for many years, and over the past few years had the privilege of leading a longitudinal study of leadership development in early career psychologists based at the University of Edinburgh. Popular notions about leadership still focus on an individual who stands alone from the crowd as a result of some special qualities, often defined in terms of charisma, which derives from the Greek word χαρισμα (khárisma) meaning literally 'divine gift'.

The sociologist Max Weber described charisma in relation to leaders as a 'certain quality of an individual personality, by virtue of which he is set apart from ordinary men and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities. These are such as are not accessible to the ordinary person, but are regarded as of divine origin or as exemplary.'

These ideas remain prominent in our narratives about leadership today. If you type the word 'leadership' into an image search you will find images of a man (or occasionally a woman) standing out in front of the crowd, often on top of a giant arrow or on the top of a mountain, often pointing or holding a telescope or steering wheel (as in the example to the left). Behind are typically smaller nondescript figures who are tagging along behind the leader – these are the 'followers' whose role is quite clearly one of passive submission. We can also hear this narrative in the news on a daily basis; a 'super-head' teacher has been brought in to 'turn-around' a failing school, or a 'visionary' new CEO has arrived at a company to 'drive up performance'.

A great deal has been written on leadership. You would think, therefore, that our beliefs about leadership must be built upon a pretty solid foundation. Well, yes…and no.

Last year a list of the top 25 leadership books of all time was published in Soundview magazine. To be clear, I think most of the books on the list are excellent – I found I had 22 of them on my bookshelf, and had even read most of them! However, if you take a step back, and particularly if you look at photos of the authors, you begin to realise that there's something odd. The 25 'best books' have a total of 32 authors, and all but one of these authors is male (i.e. 97 per cent), and all but two are White (94 per cent); the exceptions being Sun Zsu, who wrote The Art of War in the 4th century BC, and Ram Charan, who whilst born in India, took his MBA and doctoral degrees in Harvard and spent his working life in the USA. Indeed, every single book was written either in the USA (94 per cent) or the UK (6 per cent), apart from The Art of War (which seems to be much more popular in the USA and the UK than it is in China!). There seem to me to be two possible explanations for this observation: 
1) Leadership only happens in the UK and USA or 
2) Our understanding of leadership has been coming from a rather limited perspective, and one perhaps in which the 'hero leader model' is more dominant. Indeed, an intriguing 2010 study of culture and the perception of the leader's position, led by Tanya Menon, found that Americans represent leaders standing ahead of groups, whereas Asians represent 'back leaders' standing behind groups.

I'm a big fan of the USA and its people. However, its history is quite distinct from most other countries; over 95 per cent of the population are descendants of those who arrived within the last 200 years. Most White immigrants arrived alone, or with their immediate family unit, almost all with the hope of making a better life through their own endeavours via free enterprise. Thus, even of the White population of the Northern Hemisphere, they were a selected sample. Yet it is their descendants who have shaped our view on leadership towards the 'heroic leader'. Of course, the ancestors of the majority of Black Americans have a very different history, arriving as slaves either directly to the USA, or via the Caribbean. Their voices are notably absent among the books on leadership.

The ancient Indian parable of the blind men and the elephant is relevant here. One day the residents of a village inhabited by blind people learn that an elephant is passing through the area; having no experience of the animal they sent a party out to report back. They found the elephant and each felt it carefully, ready to report back. When they returned to the village, the first announced confidently 'This being is like a thick snake!' The second interrupted 'you are quite mistaken, this beast is flat and broad like a fan!' Another interjected 'no, no, an elephant is a solid pillar like a tree-trunk'. Another, who had grasped the tail, said 'you are all mistaken, an elephant is like a rope!' If the village had only listened to one of the blind men, and perhaps he had written books and given TED talks, our view of an elephant would be quite incomplete.

There are many aspects of the 'heroic leader' model that make it dangerous and counterproductive. One I have personally been particularly concerned with is how it alienates those who work in health professions. My own research has found that early career psychologists see leaders being significantly more 'dominant', 'dynamic', 'pushy' and 'male' than themselves. The extent of the discrepancy between their own view of themselves and their beliefs about leaders, correlates with their motivation to engage in leadership roles, which among psychologists is often low. However, through our longitudinal research we've found that early-career psychologists can, and do, develop into confident leaders through a process of identifying their own leadership strengths within but also developing a different model of leadership.

Another problem with the heroic leadership model is that it filters what we see in the world. With 'hero-leader glasses' on, the complexities of a situation are filtered out and the 'hero leader' appears in front of us.

Shared leadership

A few years ago, I visited the Southern states of the USA as part of research into the civil rights movement. I didn't realise it at the time, but I was inadvertently travelling with my 'hero-leader glasses' on. Since my teens, I've looked up to Dr Martin Luther King Jr., and I came to realise that my view of the US civil rights movement of the 1950s had very much been constructed through these lenses. To be fair to me, I'm not the only one to be guilty of this; most accounts of the movement are written through similar lenses.

The Montgomery bus boycott is probably the single most important turning point in the 20th century civil rights movement in the South. The Black community in Montgomery, Alabama, staged an almost total boycott of the city bus system that lasted over a year, and resulted in the end of the system of segregated seating and the birth of the modern civil rights movement, with Dr Martin Luther King at its helm. Like many people, I arrived in Montgomery, with a view that the boycott started when Rosa Parks, returning home from work on a dark, cold Thursday evening in December 1955, refused to give up her seat to a White passenger. Parks' role seemed brave but passive, whereas it was the leadership of Dr King, standing apart from the crowd, which led the community to action. The sign that stands on the spot where she boarded the bus, certainly does nothing to dispel this view.

However, it turns out that Rosa Parks wasn't the first Black person to refuse to give up their seat on a bus. She wasn't even the first that year. In 1955 alone, five other women had been arrested, and charged, for the same 'offence', including a 15-year-old schoolgirl, Claudette Colvin, in March 1955. Following Colvin's arrest, a delegation including E.D. Nixon, the President of the local chapter of the Black civil rights organisation, the NAACP, and Jo Anne Robinson, the Chairperson of the Montgomery Women's Political Council, met with city commissioners to protest and even threated a bus boycott. Nor was Rosa the passive, apolitical, character of the dominant narrative. More relevant than her job as a seamstress in a department store, but notably absent from the sign, are the facts that Parks had served as the secretary of the local NAACP since 1943, had attended a residential leadership course at Highlander Folk school that summer led by Septima Clark, the 'grandmother of the civil rights movement' and, just four days before her arrest, attended a meeting about the recent acquittal of the murders of Black teenager, Emmett Till.

The night Rosa Parks was arrested, Nixon, and civil rights lawyer, Clifford Durr, went to make her bail. Robinson learned of Parks' arrest in the late evening. A lecturer at Alabama State College, she went back to work that night where she and two students hand-printed a staggering 35,000 leaflets calling for a bus boycott the following Monday, the day scheduled for Parks' trial. After teaching her morning classes, Robinson and her students distributed the leaflets across the whole of Montgomery via other members of the Women's Political Council.

In contrast, Dr King wasn't even aware of Parks' arrest until later on Friday morning, when Nixon called him to tell him of the plan, and that he had arranged a meeting that afternoon to be held in King's own church since it was the largest venue! The meeting was attended by all the local ministers, of which King was a relatively junior member, being only 26 years of age and having only arrived in Alabama to take his first ministerial position the previous year. Indeed, he later wrote that, when he was asked the following Monday afternoon to lead the MIA, the organisation established to co-ordinate the boycott, 'The action caught me unawares, it happened so quickly that I did not have time to think it through, if I had it is probable that I would have declined the nomination'. Later that evening, after the first successful day of the Boycott, 6000 people crammed into the church, or gathered outside, to hear Dr King's powerful words, that he had written only minutes before: 'There comes a time when people get tired of being trampled over by the iron feet of oppression. There comes a time, my friends, when people get tired of being plunged across the abyss of humiliation, where they experience the bleakness of nagging despair. There comes a time when people get tired of being pushed out of the glittering sunlight of life's July and left standing amid the piercing chill of an alpine November. There comes a time.'

The boycott eventually came to an end, not through the capitulation of the local authorities, but through a case brought in the Federal court by Fred Gray, the 24-year-old protégé of Clifford Durr, on behalf of the four women who had been charged earlier in 1955, including Claudette Colvin. By the time Colvin courageously took the witness stand in the Alabama District Court in June 1956, she was 16 years of age and a single mother. When asked by the attorney for the city if she and the others had a leader when they began protesting the segregation laws, she replied 'Did we have a leader? Our leaders is just we ourselves!'

What Claudette Colvin was saying was not that there was no leadership, nor that no leaders were required, but rather that there was not one single 'heroic' leader. Rather there were multiple leaders who shared the activities of leadership.

This might sound more straightforward, but in fact I believe it requires more skilful leaders to interact with considerably more coordination than a single heroic leadership model. Yet I think history shows us that it can be considerably more effective.

Clare Gerada, former President of the Royal College of General Practitioners, has used the analogy of a peloton in the cycle race to describe this type of leadership. Writing 'Trust me… I'm a leader' for the NHS Federation in 2013, she said: 'Taking turns at the head of the peloton allows the whole field to travel faster and for longer than any one rider could manage alone. No rider – no matter how strong – can win without cooperating with others.'

Improv wisdom

In many ways, the leaders of the bus boycott were dealing with a predictable situation; they expected more riders to be arrested and prepared accordingly. Many leadership challenges are not so predictable.

Some years ago, I read a 2005 book by Patricia Ryan Madson, who is Professor Emerita in Drama at Stanford University and who has subsequently become a dear friend and mentor. Patricia developed the improvisation programme at Stanford, and although she retired some years ago, she continues to teach adult education classes in Improvisation. In her 2005 book Improv Wisdom: Don't Prepare, Just Show Up, she applies the principles of Improv to everyday life. I have found her work incredibly useful myself, and also relevant in clinical psychology training. In clinical practice, it's not at all uncommon to have rehearsed an assessment or therapy session in your mind. You might even have notes or a manual to guide you. But when the client walks in, they reveal something completely unexpected. Trying to stick to your 'script' in those circumstances is detrimental to the client and also to the practitioner – improvisation is called for.

I am still in awe of the improviser's art, and since I've been doing research based in Edinburgh for the past few years, I've had the opportunity to visit the fringe festival and watch many improv performances. I even went back to see one improv show three times, as I couldn't believe they really produced a different show every day based on pulling audience ideas out of a hat. One of the things that really struck me about the improv group is how much they support each other, just like the redwood trees. They pay constant attention to where the other is going, and get ready to pick up the thread, or to step in, if their partner is beginning to struggle.


As the reality of the Covid crisis became apparent earlier this year, I drew on the principles of improv once again. In her book, Patricia lists 10 'improv maxims'. The 5th is 'Be average': she encourages readers to dispense with perfectionism and 'dare to be dull'. On Friday 20 March 2020, the BPS Board of Trustees approved my proposal to form of a group to oversee the Society's response to the Covid crisis. The next day, I sat down to begin to wonder what this would actually consist of! On a scrap of paper, I sketched out the different ways in which psychology might contribute to managing the pandemic, and also its broader effects on society. My normal mode would have been to elaborate and revise it over the course of the next week or two and perhaps circulate it to a few trusted colleagues for their comments. However, I decided that if there was ever a time to put the principles of improv into action it was now. I scanned the scrap of paper and posted it on Twitter with a request for comments and additions.

I posted it at 7:30 on Saturday evening, and immediately began receiving comments, which didn't stop. I spent the next 24 hours straight responding to comments from around the world. People suggested additions, made links with areas of existing work, and highlighted specific potential psychological contributions. Over the next two days, we recruited members to the coordinating group, including a clinical psychologist with experience of international humanitarian work who I had not known until she responded to the tweet. The group met for the first time on Wednesday 25 March and this 'crowdsourced' framework has been used to organise our workstreams ever since, with only small subsequent modifications.

Throughout the BPS Covid response we have explicitly drawn on the principles of shared leadership. These are summarised by Jay Carson and colleagues in a 2007 Academy of Management Journal article. They identify a number of facilitating factors: a shared purpose (clear understanding of a shared goal, team members providing practical and emotional support to one another, trust), encouraging openness and candour, and voice (ensuring that each team member's contribution is heard and valued). Through applying these principles, we have been able to draw together psychologists from very different backgrounds and networks, to work across the eight workstreams, most of whom still haven't met each other in real life. It has not always been plain sailing… all of us have a natural inclination to stay in our comfort zone with familiar colleagues. However, responding to crises requires coming together across silos, although not at the expense of existing, valued networks.

Within the coordinating group we found the model of the Barbarians rugby team a helpful one. The Baa-Baas are an invitational team that draws players from clubs across the world to play occasional matches against national teams. They have their own uniform, a black and white hooped jersey and black shorts, but players are allowed to wear the different coloured socks of their own club team. No one participating in the work felt that an existing social identity was being threatened, but rather that a new one was being gained through contributing to valuable work. Some of the outputs, which have received praise here in the UK and around the world, can be seen at

I will finish with my favourite of all the many leadership quotes from the Taoist philosopher Lao Tzu, with, if you will permit me, my own small addition at the end.

A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves… and they will be right.

- Find David Murphy on Twitter


Carson, J., Tesluk, P., & Marrone, J. (2007). Shared Leadership in Teams: An Investigation of Antecedent Conditions and Performance. The Academy of Management Journal, 50, 1217-1234. 

Gerada, C. (2013) Trust me... I'm a leader. NHS Confederation, London.

Ngomane, M. (2019) Everyday Ubuntu – Living better together, the African Way. Transworld, London, England.

Ryan Madson, P. (2005) Improv Wisdom – don't prepare just show up. Random House, New York, NY.