Just What Do We Mean by Leadership Anyway?

By Andrew Martin

For as long as there have been social movements, popular culture has been quick to either laud or demonize leaders of popular protest (and often those that were once scorned eventually become mythical heroes). The successes enjoyed by the Civil Rights movement was due to the effort of numerous organizations and thousands of activists willing to put their life on the line, yet Martin Luther King jr. remains the face of racial struggle in America. He is, for many Americans, a symbol of justice and the personification of racial equality. The list of other social movement leaders and revolutionaries, both loved and hated, is extensive: Vladimir Lenin and the Bolsheviks, Caesar Chavez and the farmworkers movement, Che Guevara and the Cuban Revolution, Susan B. Anthony and the women’s suffrage movement, to name just a few.

That leadership of social movements is important is beyond debate; however, movement scholars continue to struggle with understanding leadership in popular contention. In this essay I focus on two distinct topics. First, how do we conceptualize leadership in social movements? In other words, how do we know who is exerting authority during contentious political activity? Second, and more briefly, I ask what is the effect of leaders on various social movement outcomes? Are leaders of protest as influential as the popular press would have us believe; or is their power limited by the shackles of bureaucracy?

Just Who is in Charge Anyway

Movement scholars must deal with a major reality when identifying who exerts authority within a social movement. Quite simply, when thinking about leadership in Weberian terms as authority, social movements combine both charismatic and rational-legal modes of authority. Indeed, in their influential essay on social movement organizations (SMOs), Zald and Ash identified the transition from charismatic to rational-legal authority as one of the main challenges facing SMOs. Susan Staggenborg’s analysis of the women’s movement also documented how organizations try to manage the shift from a reliance on the individual founder of the organization to a more bureaucratic form of leadership. This has become increasingly important as social movements become more and more professionalized and bureaucratic (McCarthy and Zald), a trend that represents a direct challenge to more traditional forms of leadership, like charismatic authority.

And yet it would be short-sighted to argue that a particular SMO is driven by only one form of authority. Rather, I contend that we need to think about the tension between different types of authority both within individual SMOs and across an entire social movement sector (such as the environmental movement).   A useful starting point, I contend, is thinking about how authority is distributed within an organization. In other words, which actors hold most of the decision-making power? In my analysis of local labor unions, I argued that there are four nodes of authority within these organizations: the elected leaders, the paid staff, the rank-and-file members, and the international union the local is affiliated with. Through an analysis of union organizing efforts I show that which voices speak loudest in the organization has considerable implications for predicting both the level and types of new membership recruitment efforts. Of course, other types of SMOs have very different organizational structures than labor unions; nevertheless, I contend that understanding the formal bureaucracy of the organization can shed valuable light on who wields power.

Examining the structure of SMO authority harkens back to Michel’s Iron Law of Oligarchy, which predicts that all voluntary organizations, like SMOs, will eventually come to be dominated by a stable cadre of leaders more interested in maintaining their power in the than pursuing stated organizational goals. This is especially relevant for our analysis of SMOs, which often have goals that threatened the very existing of the organization, and, by extension, the privileged position leaders occupy. Yet more recent work on this topic, such as Kim Voss and Rachel Sherman’s analysis of the revitalization of the labor movement, illustrates that oligarchy is not an irreversible process. Moreover, their analysis illustrates that it may be leaders, rather than the rank-and-file, that push for a more radical agenda. This work certainly provides a more nuanced understanding of how we think about leadership in formalized SMOs.

Despite the insights offered by the works cited above, our understanding of less formalized, more charismatic forms of authority in SMOs is more limited. We know that movements can be dominated by individuals who appear “larger than life;” the question for scholars is how do we identify such leaders? This is especially relevant for movements that adopt a less-formalized structure. In her essay on the women’s movement, Jo Freeman writes about the “tyranny of structurelessness” whereby a lack of a formal structure allows certain individuals to exert greater authority in the organization. Although she does not explicitly talk about this in terms of charisma, the parallels are quite clear. Analysis this more amorphous form of power requires greater innovation on the part of the researcher; obviously a qualitative approach can more readily discern who is influential, and it seems reasonable that network analyses should also shed light on this topic. Regardless of the approach, I contend that we need to continue to be sensitive to less formalize forms of authority.

Just What do Leaders do Anyway?

Once we have identified who exerts authority in a social movement or SMO, we then need to attend to the influence, and limitations thereof, of such leaders. “Great man” theories of leadership seem dated (and wholly patriarchal), yet to assume that leaders exert no influence in the actions of a social movement seem equally short sighted. Even if leaders cannot shape organizational behavior, by virtue of their visibility they may be called upon by the popular media to articulate the goals of the movement. As such, leaders can shape the framing of the movement’s message to a considerable degree.

Yet as others have empirically demonstrated, leaders can have very real and discernable implications of the day to day functioning of the movement. For example, in his seminal work on the United Farmworkers, Marshall Ganz shows how the “strategic capacity” of the leadership structure of this organization was able to overcome obstacles their more well-healed and established predecessors couldn’t deal with. McCarthy and Wolfson examined the ability of leaders to secure resources, demonstrating the mechanisms by which SMOs secure scarce resources, providing an important addition to our understanding the mechanisms by which resource mobilization operates.  This research suggests that organizational leaders are important, but we need to understand how their influence is constrained both by the organization they lead and the broader political and social environment within which they operate.

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