In the summer of 2003, I started working on a research project with Andy Andrews, Marshall Ganz, Hahrie Han, and Chaeyoon Lim studying the Sierra Club. Our initial question was what made some of the Sierra Club’s local groups and state chapters more effective civic associations than other ones (here’s the answer). As we talked with Club members and staff, it quickly became clear that local leadership needed to be a central focus of the study. The more than 400 groups and chapters were governed and run by teams of elected volunteer leaders. There were more than 3,000 of these leaders, all over the country—and there wasn’t a household name among them. These were the everyday leaders of the Club and of the contemporary environmental movement in the U.S.
We focused much of our data collection effort on those leadership teams. We asked leaders to fill out 15-page paper surveys (yes, that’s right: fifteen pages)—and more than 1600 of them did. As we analyzed that data, a second fact became clear: leaders did a lot more leading when they led together. Our analyses suggested that otherwise average leaders on teams that really worked together on their activism (“interdependent work” was the term of art) would give about two hours per month more to their leadership activity than leaders on average teams. Similarly, average leaders on teams that most-fairly shared the amount of work they collectively did also gave about two more hours per month than average. And that interdependent time was valuable. As our initial research had shown, interdependent leadership teams led groups that engaged more members, developed more new leaders, and became more recognized contributors to their local political scenes.
This finding wasn’t a shock, of course. Ganz had identified similar dynamics in the United Farm Workers in the 1960s (a story he fleshed out further in his book) as had Aldon Morris in his classic book on the Civil Rights Movement. Still, the size of the impact of leaders on one another in settings that were much “cooler” than the heated movement periods studied by Ganz and Morris was pretty remarkable. We estimated that a Sierra Club leader who had all the personal characteristics needed to give lots of time to leadership but was on the worst possible leadership team, would give about 8 hours per month. A leader with the least-likely personal characteristics on the best possible team… would give 44. When leaders lead alone, they don’t do much leading. When leaders lead together, they lead a lot.
Han’s 2014 book How Organizations Develop Activists (extensively discussed here) extended thinking along these lines. She also studied local chapters of national associations (a health advocacy group and another environmental movement organization) and found that chapters that effectively engaged members and participants were ones where the practice of leadership was focused on building relationships. Leaders in high engagement chapters did personal outreach to recruits and held lengthy one-on-one meetings with potential activists. They crafted teams of budding leaders and gave them compelling reasons to work together over time. Perhaps most importantly, as leaders rose through the ranks, they were trained on how to do this kind of transformational, relational work so that the organization would be continuously refreshed with new connections and the collective motivation that comes with it. (In another book, Han and Elizabeth McKenna show how the Obama presidential election campaigns did this kind of thing as well).
This is not to say that all local chapters of movement organizations are chock full of leaders practicing collective, interdependent, relational leadership. Far from it. Plenty of the groups in our study and in Han’s book had people who occupied leadership positions, but did virtually no relating (some of Han’s interviewees call these folks “lone wolves”). These people are titular leaders, but analytically, they’re far different creatures. And the ways that these loners interact (or fail to interact) with other titular leaders in their organizations will have impacts on themselves and on the others around them.
As the scholarship of social movement leadership advances, then, I suggest we work to always study leaders in the plural. In particular:
- Let’s be sure to distinguish leaders-in-title from leaders-in-practice (Belinda Robnett helped us start doing this some time ago), and let’s measure those things separately and count them all. A bunch of interesting studies are waiting to be written that can authoritatively say what percentage of some set of movement organizations’ leaders-in-practice have titles and what percentage of that same set of movement organizations’ title-holders are actually leaders-in-practice. [Know of a study like that this that’s already out there? Post a link to it in the comments.]
- Let’s be sure to study leaders in relational context. Let’s not look at leaders as distinct actors apart from the others around them. Instead, let’s think about how the others around them are also part of the leading—and that the removal of any one of them would likely change the leadership dynamics for the rest [take a look at your favorite biography of a social movement leader and you’ll see a team swirling around them, whether it’s called a team or not; and if you have a favorite biography that highlights the team dynamics, post a link in the comments.]
Unfortunately, implementing these suggestions will probably be harder than it sounds. They imply getting data about many people within many organizations and independently assessing what those people do and how they interact. Independent assessments of people and interactions are usually best done by skilled observers—but we don’t currently have great methods for getting detailed observational data at large scales. Perhaps we’ll need to invent some. I’m working on one approach (here’s a preview) but there are undoubtedly others (check out some social movement data thoughts here and here).
In short, leaders do many things in movements, but they almost never do it alone. Arguably, the core of what effective social movement leaders do is build relationships and build relationship builders—and leaders who do not do those things, are probably barely leading. Let’s build an understanding of leadership as a collective, relational enterprise into our research work not only as a rhetorical point, but as a fundamental analytic approach—no matter what techniques we have to cook up to do it.