Sociology of Leadership
Reclaiming the Sociological Study of Leadership Michael Fraleigh, Ph. D. Bryant University Presented at the 105th American Sociological Association Meetings August 14-17, 2010 Hilton Atlanta and Atlanta Marriott Marquis Atlanta, Georgia Reclaiming the Sociological Study of Leadership Abstract Sociology’s long tradition of examining the intersection between individual and group behavior suggests an obvious line of inquiry into the nature of leadership in both formal and informal settings.
Indeed, sociological studies from 1935 through mid-century created a solid foundation for a distinctive, sociological approach. Surprisingly, that promise has yet to be fulfilled; sociology has instead often stood on the sidelines as more individual-centered disciplines such as psychology, communication, and management have engaged in serious theoretical and empirical research into leadership. This paper provides a summary overview of early sociological research into leadership as a social phenomenon, and calls for a renewed focus on the sociological study of leadership.
Reclaiming the Sociological Study of Leadership Part I: Missed Opportunities A quick survey of interest in leadership amongst today’s high schools turns out not to be so quick after all: type the phrase “high school student leadership” into a search engine and you will get more than 100,000 hits. And this emphasis finds a ready audience among America’s adolescents. In a survey of high school students reported by Gilgorich (1993), a whopping 25 percent of respondents considered themselves in the top 1 percent of leaders, and virtually all considered themselves average or above.
We can smile at this youthful naivete, but we should also expect that a good number of these teenagers, once they arrive at college, will be eager to have their leadership skills formally acknowledged through college leadership courses duly completed and officially stamped on their academic transcripts. And some, too, will seek out leadership courses for all the right reasons: to learn more about their social world and thereby enhance their capacity to understand others while becoming more effective themselves as social beings.
So where in the curriculum are such eager learners to turn? Management, perhaps; but management is not leadership. The primary functions of management are planning, organizing, staffing, and controlling (Northouse 2007), skills that are undeniably useful but that by themselves add up only to management, not leadership. As with any complex aspect of human behavior, we might more profitably turn to the social sciences. Psychology, in fact, has a well established research tradition of searching for and documenting leadership traits as personality characteristics.
Not surprisingly, that discipline also offers courses in the psychology of leadership. But even psychologists today seem to acknowledge that trait theory will take you only so far, and that for any useful or satisfying understanding of leadership, the individual must be seen as acting within a broader social context (e. g. Reicher, Platow and Haslam, 2007). But, of course, not everyone views leadership that way. What is Leadership? The term “leadership” has become so ubiquitous as to defy definition.
Co-curricular programs on college campuses encourage the development of “leadership skills,” and freely use the term “leader” to refer to anyone making an effort to gain those skills. At Bryant University, a co-curricular leadership program culminates with the Established Leader Retreat (ELR), “a two-night, three-day off-campus retreat held in October. ELR is designed to practice leadership skills through activities including a scavenger hunt, raft building, and mind over matter exercises. ” The entire program includes a number of activities that do, indeed, seem connected to leadership and may very well produce leaders.
The term “leader,” though, seems here to apply more to a presumed set of skills and, perhaps, a psychological orientation than it does to actually demonstrating effectiveness while occupying a status, holding an office, or even to influencing others in the accomplishment of shared goals. This sense of leadership as detached from actual leading was described by Annie Dillard in her memoire An American Childhood. Among the social elite of mid-twentieth century Pittsburg, Dillard writes, “leadership” was a genteel way of talking about social class without ever talking about social class.
Unless, of course, one unpacked the term and said, explicitly, “the leadership class. ” Here again, to lead is less a verb than an honorific. Half a century later, leadership has been completely commodified: at Bryant University, it is possible to purchase leadership. For a contribution of $1,000 an ordinary person can instantly become a leader, complete with an official leadership designation and a prime parking spot labeled “Reserved for President’s Leadership Council. ” If you can’t afford $1,000 but still want to be a leader, you may contribute $375. 0 to WGBH, Boston’s National Public Radio Station, and instantly you will be a member of the Leadership Circle. Along with the currently popular view of leadership as a mark of prestige, add the more traditional views of leadership as consisting in inborn personality traits, or learned skills, or “styles,” or a system of power relations, or the focus of group processes, and it is no surprise that a recent review found 65 different classification systems, each attempting to define the dimensions of leadership (Fleishman et al. 991). Against the backdrop of so many divergent ideas about the essential nature of leadership, is a sociological view the correct one? As Weber noted in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (2009), “This point of view …[is] by no means the only possible one from which the historical phenomena we are investigating can be analyzed. Other standpoints would, for this as for every historical phenomenon, yield other characteristics as essential ones. It is thus with a Weberian humility that we turn now to a brief overview of early sociological investigations into leadership, two decades of fertile exploration that put a distinctively sociological stamp on leadership studies. Part II: Pioneers in the Sociological Study of Leadership What follows is an admittedly exploratory survey of early investigations of leadership carried out by sociologists and published in leading journals. While not exhaustive, it nonetheless illustrates both the intellectual depth of the sociological approach and the broad scope of these early analyses. Page’s Analysis of Leadership at West Point
We begin with an interesting investigation into measuring and predicting leadership at a military academy carried out by David P. Page in 1935. As part of their military training, the cadets at West Point were rated annually on their leadership qualities and ranked within their classes. These ratings were carried out by peers, group leaders, and the commissioned officers in charge of the cadets. The final rankings thus represent a weighted average of a number of individual judgments. In addition, the cadets are ranked on a number of other characteristics, including “bearing and appearance,” scholarship, tactics, athletics, and “activities. In an effort to determine what is meant by “leadership” at West Point, Page examined the records of 1,146 graduates—the entire classes of 1930, ’31, ’32, and ’33. For those leaders ranked in the top 10% of their class, correlations were examined between leadership rankings and the cadet’s standing in other subjects. By far the most powerful correlate was with “bearing and appearance,” (r=. 617). Correlates with tactics, athletics, conduct, and activities were considerably lower, and none was statistically significant.
Page then examined the relationship between leadership and bearing for a random sample of the graduating class of 1934, comparing their leadership rank in their senior year with that same rank each previous year and with bearing and appearance rankings for each of the cadet’s four years. The results were somewhat astonishing: leadership in the 4th year correlated with leadership in the 3rd, 2nd, and 1st years at . 85, . 79, and . 68, respectively, and the correlations with bearing and appearance were, . 87, . 96, . 94, and . 95. Evidently at West Point, “leadership” is “bearing and appearance. But, what is bearing and appearance? As the terms are applied at West Point, Page explains, “bearing and appearance” refer to carriage and physique, not to an individual’s features. Through an intensive process of socialization every cadet is instilled with a deep appreciation of and capacity for personal neatness and soldierly carriage. So intense is this socialization process that it overrides both natural aptitudes and earlier training. Thus, Page observes, the measure is “one of acquired capacities rather than of endowments, of response to environment rather than of inherited characteristics” (1935). That eadership is, or at least was, at West Point more closely associated with bearing than with, say academic standing, or tactical competence, or athleticism, is interesting in itself. But the deep insights from Page’s investigation are (1) that the attribution of leadership can be demystified, and that within a given organizational culture the number of correlates may be small; (2) that leadership, at least at West Point, is largely a product of socialization, not inborn traits; (3) that it is possible, indeed likely, that the cadets chosen as leaders would receive quite different ratings in another setting.
This recognition that leadership is more an expression of the group than of the individual leads Page to conclude that “effective leadership must always be a proper fraction, of which the denominator, seldom common in two situations, is not the leader, but the led” (1935). Morris and Seeman’s Paradigm for the Study of Leadership In the aftermath of World War II a concerted effort was made to develop effective leaders, both in the military and in industry. In academia, this interest resulted in the creation of an interdisciplinary team of social scientists at Ohio State University, the Ohio State Leadership Studies.
Included on the team were psychologist Ralph M. Stodgill and sociologists Richard T. Morris and Melvin Seeman. It was Morris and Seeman (1950) who challenged the prevailing assumption that a “leader” can be identified simply as someone who holds a leader’s office. When more analytical considerations of “leader” are explored, the definition must be expanded to include the individual who has more influence upon group members than any other, or the individual named by the group as the leader, or the person who is most influential in setting or attaining the goals of the group, to name only a few.
Morris and Seeman go on to produce a “paradigm for the study of leadership” that aims to discover “the relation of group and individual factors to differentials in leader behavior. ” They argue that while difficult to derive, a causal model developed from this paradigm would bear directly upon a crucial—and usually untested hypothesis—that leader behavior does, in fact, make a difference. Specifically, the Morris-Seeman paradigm directs our attention to ten questions: (1) Who is the leader? (2) What is defined as leader behavior? 3) How is leader behavior to be described and analyzed? (4) and (5) What group and individual factors are significant for leader behavior? (6) Why does the leader behave as he [or she] does? (7) What phenomena are concomitant with given kinds of leader behavior? (8) What are the results of leader behavior? (9) What factors serve as conditioners? (10) How are the results of leader behavior evaluated? Reflecting upon this set of ten research questions suggests that they continue to be relevant to a sociology of leadership.
Moreover, the breadth of the paradigm allows for analysis at both the micro and mid-range levels. Symbolic Interactionism Stakes a Claim: Warriner, 1955 The applicability of micro-level approaches to the study of leadership was convincingly demonstrated by Charles K. Warriner in his article “Leadership in the Small Group” (1955). Drawing upon Mead’s (1934) concept of the “significant symbol,” Warriner takes issue with the simplistic assumptions of leadership as stimulus response found in Whyte’s Street Corner Society (1943).
Where Whyte and others attempted to operationalize leadership by observing the effect of one actor acting upon another, and counting as “acts” only those observable changes in body or musculature that could be readily observed, Warriner correctly shifted the focus to the continuous nature of interaction and the importance of meanings that social actors attach to such acts. By taking seriously the need to observe and analyze what leaders actually do, Warriner also demonstrated the opportunity to learn more about leadership by extending our analyses beyond formal organizations to include small group dynamics. Enter the Functionalists
While Warriner and others saw opportunities for symbolic interactionist theory to shed light on the problem of leadership, Talcott Parsons, Robert F. Bales, and Edward A. Shils were taking a different approach (1953). Positing leadership as a requirement of the group, Parsons saw leaders as performing functions necessary to the survival of social systems. Through small group laboratory studies, Bales and Slater (1953) demonstrated that problem-solving groups tend to differentiate roles specialized in the task area from those specialized in the socioemotional area. Leaders develop in association with one or the other of these areas.
Parsons and Bales go on to theorize that any social system will differentiate four subsystems, each oriented to a system problem. The first two problems are in the task area: (1) adaptation and (2) goal attainment. The third and fourth problems are in the socioemotional area: (3) integration and (4) pattern maintenance and tension management. Empirical support for this model came when Amitai Etzioni found four types of leaders, each representing a differentiated subsystem (Etzioni 1959). By the close of the decade, researchers had put a distinctively sociological stamp on leadership studies.
From Page’s insight that leadership “traits” are actually the product of socialization processes within a larger normative setting, to Morris and Seeman’s ambitious, multidimensional model of leadership with clear implications for causal analysis; from Warriner’s insistence that at the micro level, leadership is a process of social interaction that can be understood only by taking account of the meanings held by participants, to Parsons and Bales’ grand theory of leadership as a product of the differentiation of roles based on functional problems, we have before us a powerful set of conceptual tools to examine leadership as a social process.
Conclusion and Invitation As noted at the beginning of this brief survey, the investigations described here are only a sampling of the beginnings of a rich sociological line of inquiry. It nonetheless documents a promise unfulfilled. The sociological study of leadership from mid-century to the present day has generated a rich framework of ideas awaiting development, but the discipline has failed to build upon this foundational work. When military, government and corporate leaders seek solutions to leadership problems, they rarely come to sociology.
When students come to their professors wondering about the dynamics of leadership within organizations and how students can develop skills and insights that will help them to work more effectively as organizational leaders, to whom do they turn? Too easily we have ceded the study of leadership to our colleagues in more individual-centered fields of study. Examining leadership within its broader, social context is a rich opportunity, and one that we can no longer afford to pass up. It is time to reinvigorate the sociological study of leadership.
This paper was conceived as an introduction to a problem as well as an invitation to extend this conversation through scholarship, both independent and collaborative. For my part, I aim to expand upon the modest intellectual history presented here, exhaustively chronicling the early contributions to the sociological study of leadership and describing the analyses, the theory, and the main currents of sociological thought that characterized these studies. Independent of that effort, a revitalized application of sociological insight to questions surrounding the nature of leadership as a socially constructed phenomenon is rife with possibility.
I am aware that scattered across the profession are contemporary scholars who have advanced our understanding of the sociological dimensions of leadership, as well as others who have developed and taught courses within this area. I conclude, therefore, with an invitation: to those who may be interested in strengthening the institutional basis for a reinvigorated application of the sociological imagination to the examination of leadership within its broader, social context, contact me.
I look forward hearing from you, and through correspondence, conversation, round table discussion, and scholarship, to working with you to reclaim the sociological study of leadership. References Bales, Robert F. , and Phillip E. Slater. 1953. “Expressive and Instrumental Groups: Toward a Theory of group Structure. ” in Socialization and Interaction Process, edited by Talcott Parsons and Robert F. Bales. Glencoe, Ill. : The Free Press. Dillard, Annie. 1988. An American Childhood. New York: HarperCollins.
Etzioni, Amitai. 1959. “The Functional Differentiation of Elites in the Kibbutz. ” American Journal of Sociology 44:488-93. Fleishman, E. A. , M. D. Mumford, S. J. Zaccaro, K. Y. Levin, A. L. Korotkin, and M. B. Hein. 1991. “Taxonomic Effects in the Description of Leader Behavior: A Synthesis and Functional Interpretation. ” Leadership Quarterly 2:245-287. Gilgorich, Thomas. 1993. How We Know What Isn’t So: The Fallibility of Human Reason in Everyday Life: Free Press. Mead, George Herbert. 1934.
Mind, Self and Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Morris, Richard T. , and Melvin Seeman. 1950. “The Problem of Leadership: An Interdisciplinary Approach. ” The American Journal of Sociology 56:149-155. Northouse, Peter G. 2007. Leadership: Theory and Practice. Thousand oaks: SAGE Publications. Page, David P. 1935. “Measurement and Prediction of Leadership. ” The American Journal of Sociology 41:31-43. Parsons, Talcott, Robert F. Bales, and Edward A. Shils. 1953. Working Papers in the Theory of Action.
Glencoe, Ill. : The Free Press. Trainor, Stephen C. , Donald H. Horner, Jr, and David R. Segal. 2008. “The Enigmatic History of Sociology at the United States Naval Academy. ” Armed Forces ; Society 35:106-121. Warriner, Charles K. 1955. “Leadership in the Small Group. ” The American Journal of Sociology 60:361-369. Weber, Max. 2009. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. New York: W. W. Norton and Co. Whyte, William Foote. 1943. Street Corner Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Get access to
Guarantee No Hidden