LEADING TEAMS (or, How Social Movement Leaders Are Like Flight Attendants, Semiconductor Manufacturers, and Second Violinists)

By Matthew Baggetta

What does this image have to do with social movements? More than you might expect.

It is increasingly common for social movement scholars to bemoan the lack of theory and research on leadership in social movements. There’s a good reason for this: there’s not enough out there. We know a bit about who becomes a movement leader. We know a bit about how they become leaders. We know a bit about what the leadership experience does to leaders over time. And we know a bit about what leaders (sometimes) (probably) do. There’s clearly a lot of ground left to cover.

One way to advance our understanding is to shift from thinking about leadership as something individuals do to thinking about leadership as the outputs from leadership teams (recent works by Marshall Ganz, Francesca Polletta, and others have started pushing us in such directions). Making this conceptual shift refocuses our attention away from the particulars of what certain leaders have done and toward the organizational and interactional contexts within which they operated. The most brilliant tactical innovation or issue frame is highly context dependent. But the settings from which brilliant ideas spring forth may not be. In effect, to understand movement leadership, we might be better off asking why some leadership teams work better than others.

The best place to start down this intellectual path: J. Richard Hackman’s Leading Teams: Setting the Stage for Great Performances (2002, Harvard Business School Press). Hackman, the Edgar Pierce Professor of Social and Organizational Psychology at Harvard University, has been studying teams for more than 40 years. This is his first book-length monograph on the subject drawing together much of this work into a clear and compelling presentation of team management theory. His focus is not on leadership teams, per se (and definitely not on social movement leaders). Rather, his research seeks to explain the effectiveness of work teams—groups of people in a variety of employment settings (from airlines to orchestras) who work together to produce some output (from successful flights to Mozart symphonies).

Leading Teams: Setting the Stage for Great Performances, by J. Richard Hackman. Harvard Business School Press, 2002.

He identifies a set of five conditions that facilitate (or hamper) team effectiveness. A team must be “real,” not an ambiguously assembled group. It must have “compelling direction,” not a mish-mash of conflicting aims. The team needs an “enabling structure,” including the right size, the right mix of members, and the right interactional norms. It needs to operate in a “supportive organizational context” where information and training are available and where recognition and rewards accrue to the team. And team members must have access to “expert coaching.” When the going gets tough, the tough start learning—but only if someone is there to teach them. Hackman devotes a chapter to each of these conditions, defining them in detail, explaining where they come from, and suggesting how they can be created.

The research upon which the theory is based has been conducted in a wide array of team settings from commercial airline flight crews to semiconductor manufacturers to string quartets. At first, the examples drawn from these (and many other) employment settings might make it seem like the lessons of Leading Teams should not apply to the social movements setting. After all, unlike the crew of a 747, social movement leadership teams have no higher corporate leader telling them what their direction should be, what information they need to act, and where they can turn for help. Social movement leadership teams must be self-governing and self-managing. They have to define their own team boundaries, create their own enabling structures, and seek out their own coaches.

But this is precisely what makes the theory so useful for understanding movement leadership. A good corporate leader creates conditions within which work teams run themselves and produce exemplary outcomes. Extending that logic, a team that could create its own facilitative conditions wouldn’t need a corporate leader at all. Successful movement leadership outcomes, therefore, might be the product of a team that can self-manage (see Ganz’s description of the heyday of the United Farm Workers for an example). Conversely, movement leadership that fails may not do so because it faced too stiff an opposition or made one crucial wrong choice, but rather because it created conditions where it was unlikely to be able to ever develop the necessary outputs.

The theory, then, is eminently useful in the social movements arena. Scholars can take this set of tools into the field, looking for the conditions surrounding movement leadership teams, explaining how those conditions came about, and detailing what outcomes came of them. Activists, too, can take Hackman’s suggestions and put them to work, crafting leadership teams that have the best chances of determining what needs doing and how best to do it.

And, as this is a “summer reading” recommendation, it’s important to note that Leading Teams is not a snoozer. The argument is laid out clearly and engagingly. The entertaining prose and extended illustrative examples make the book legitimately enjoyable summer reading. But don’t be fooled by the conversational style; this isn’t true beach fluff. Hackman’s claims are backed by extensive lab and field research (sometimes introduced in the text and other times in the detailed endnotes)—and his website has a wonderfully user-friendly list of his prior publications if you want to follow up on details of particular studies (the site will automatically email .pdf versions of his published works directly to you).

The team management approach won’t answer all of our outstanding questions about movement leadership, but for an area that is looking for good questions as well as good answers, this theory is a great place to start the search. Leading Teams offers a very readable introduction to an interesting area of inquiry that I suspect will leave you looking at old movements issues in new ways.

(As a bonus, there’s a sequel. Hackman, along with Ruth Wageman, Debra A. Nunes, and James A. Burruss have recently published Senior Leadership Teams: What it Takes to Make Them Great (2008, Harvard Business School Press). I haven’t read it yet, but I’m adding it to my summer reading list.)


Filed under Essay Dialogues, Great Books for Summer Reading

2 responses to “LEADING TEAMS (or, How Social Movement Leaders Are Like Flight Attendants, Semiconductor Manufacturers, and Second Violinists)

  1. Pingback: June Essay Dialogue: Great Books for Summer Reading | Mobilizing Ideas

  2. Pingback: great book reviews over at mobilizing ideas « orgtheory.net

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