Sociology of Leadership

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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
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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 $375.00 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. 1991).
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