Sociology of Leadership

Topics: Sociology, Leadership, Social sciences Pages: 9 (2992 words) Published: February 29, 2012
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
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 naiveté, 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...

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