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Leaders and Leadership [1]

by Harvey Jackins

Is leadership necessary in group activity of human beings? Do human beings need to have leaders as they act together, or are leaders a luxury that people could well do without?


The traditional view in our society has been that leaders are extremely important, that leaders amount to everything. History until now is the history of the king, the noble, the prime minister, the general, the team captain, or the star, while the workers, peasants, privates, and the supporting players only serve as a backdrop. In the traditional authoritarian view, people have generally to be told, bullied, pushed and inspired by a leader in order for them to act effectively in groups.


In reaction to this there is today another common view as people try to find their way to a more human existence. This view is that leaders and leadership are in themselves evil, that they should be done away with, that humanness means having no leaders. This view holds that “everyone should do one’s own thing on one’s own,” and that this would work out in the best of all possible ways. This view identifies any leader or leadership with the distressing experiences of the past when persons in authority used that position to exploit or assist in exploiting, degrading or oppressing the persons under their influence. All of us have had experiences at least with authoritarian parents’ patterns, and most of us have suffered under the economic domination of an employer or employer’s agent, autocratic military command, or a dominating person who imposed his or her will on a group.


What is an intelligent viewpoint? The reality of the situation seems to be that humans cannot engage in group activity successfully without leadership, that successful group action always requires leadership and leaders. Though such leaders or leadership may be implicit, covert, or very subtle, they are a necessary element in any concerted actions.


This is so because intelligent thinking, which is an essential ingredient of successful human activity, takes place only in an individual human mind. Collective judgments can be and are entered into, individual conclusions can be communicated to others and discussed and checked (a very salutary process), yet thinking itself must take place on an individual basis. If people are going to act as a group or as a community, at least one person has to think about the group or community as a whole rather than think of the activity only from the standpoint of a participant. The more people there are who think of the group activity as a whole, the more people there are who assume the responsibility of thinking in a leaderlike fashion, the better the results; but at least one person has to play this role.

To decry or deny this role of leadership is to let it go by default and insure difficulty, and, if uncorrected, defeat. No leaders means no leadership, no leadership means no policies, no policies means confusion and defeat of the group effort.


What are the responsibilities, roles and jobs of a leader? First, to think about the whole group’s goals, to be farsighted about the group, to clarify and communicate the functioning of the group endeavor. Second, a leader needs to play a responsible role (not a monopolistic role but a responsible role), in proposing theory and policy and in evoking the thinking and discussion and communication that are necessary to set and clarify such theory and policy. Third, it is a leader’s job to insure that such theory and policy are carried out. He or she must fight for the correct policies and theories, must uphold the correct ones against the reactive pressures which will appear from individuals’ patterns within the group, from without the group, or from the patterned culture as a whole, pressures whose effect is to dilute and degrade and render such a correct policy inoperative. Fourth, it is the job of a leader to encourage and promote new leaders, to continually assist other people to move into positions of responsibility, to keep all participants in the group activity moving toward awareness and responsibility. Fifth, if the group is to grow and include new people, a leader has the responsibility to guide such growth, to implement correct policy and actions with regard to growth. Finally, a leader must insist on realism and responsibility about resources and the use of resources, financial and otherwise.


What is a leader’s attitude toward the members of the group or community? History offers many examples of leaders who despised the members of their groups, who arrogantly knew best about everything and enforced their attitudes on all the activity of the group.

There are also many examples of poor leaders who, confronted with pressures for wrong policies or theories, surrendered to them, allowed the irrationality (which they were chosen to guard against) to take over in the group activities and, in effect, provided misleadership.

The correct attitude of a leader toward a group, it seems to me, is to realize one’s special role in relation to the group, and try to fulfill this role separately from the other roles which one will have with the group—roles as a member, as a participant, sometimes doing several different jobs. One needs to keep one’s leadership role separate from the other roles one may play to see that each of one’s relationships to the group stands by itself, not ever intruding one relationship into another.


What about the group’s attitudes toward its leaders and leadership? Parallel to the authoritarian type of leadership is the familiar attitude of letting the leader do all the thinking. “Nixon knows best what to do in Vietnam.” Another familiar attitude of group members is, out of patterned resentment at all past oppressive leaders, treating a good leader as an enemy and insisting that because of his or her position, and in the name of democracy, he or she should not defend himself or herself against the attacks. To treat leaders as enemies is likely to make their leadership impossible, ruin them as leaders, or actually convert them into enemies. A guide to a rational attitude toward leaders might be that criticism should always be offered of policies, not of a person, and that when criticism is offered, a better alternative policy should be proposed, not just a negative judgment on the one that the leader is offering.

Group members’ patterns may ignore, oppose, compete with, or attempt to supplant a leader.

It seems to me that a correct attitude for group members toward a leader or toward leadership is to cherish the leader’s correct role, to support him or her, and to offer overt appreciation (especially necessary in view of the extra effort which the leader is expected to make).

At the same time group members need to be aware of any of the leader’s blind spots or patterns or mistakes and act in these areas as a counselor toward the leader, helping him or her to take a look at his or her distresses and to discharge on and re-evaluate them.


How is leadership chosen? Even in the most structured social organizations competent or at least aggressive people tend to be intuitively or blindly pushed toward leadership. It’s true that a very competent poor boy is not likely to get sent to officer’s school, but he is quite likely to emerge as a top sergeant just from the very interaction of the soldiers in the company.

Aware criteria of leadership should improve the process for us. A willingness to be a leader needs to be joined with the ability to be responsible and the possession of wide knowledge and competence. A candidate also needs to be free enough of other responsibilities and tasks that he or she is able to carry out the effort involved in the leading role.

To be an effective leader requires competence, knowledge, good judgment, willingness to be responsible, freedom to function.


Since leadership has in the past tended to carry with it money and power and, even in the most democratic group, carries with it a kind of prestige that is greatly desired by many people, unprepared individuals sometimes nominate themselves as leaders or have others do it for them in the guise of democracy, of rotating leadership, of letting everyone have a turn. This sounds fine, and provisions for allowing new individuals to learn to lead and be responsible (assistant teachers, Alternate Reference Persons, etc.) are necessary, but to accept someone as leader unless competence is present as well as the desire to lead, is simply playing games with a pattern. To replace competent leadership in the name of democracy or rotation with someone who is not yet competent is to risk deterioration of the group program and activity. To find areas for people to learn to play leading roles and to lead is healthy and necessary, but to mistake pretense for competence in choice of leadership is a disservice to the group and its goals.

[1]  First published in The Human Situation.

Last modified: 2023-04-15 09:24:12+00