The Student Leadership Variable

Leadership is a personality trait. All of us are on a “leadership” continuum. At one end, there are those that thoroughly enjoy and search out leadership roles. At the other end, there are those that actively seek a non-participatory status when forcibly involved with a group. Think back to your group work experiences in college courses, or your association with committees in your own school. Did you naturally “take over” the leadership of the group? Did you take an active, but participatory role? Did you sit back and take an absolute minimal role in the discussions of the group? It was your personal leadership style that served as the greatest determining factor as to amount of your group participation.

To briefly explain this phenomenon, during a study of Cooperative Learning in the classroom, I videotaped small group work during four different Cooperative Learning units. The videotapes were then analyzed, and the types of leadership shown within the various small working groups was explored. Each student was classified by predetermined criteria as either a “Leader,” a “Follower” or a “Non-participant.” The following are an explanation of the categories of leadership and leadership roles:


* TASK LEADERSHIP–The student is concerned with the process–keeping others on task, getting supplies, etc.
* INTELLECTUAL LEADERSHIP–The student offers a new idea to the group (versus simply answering someone’s question with a research result).
* SOCIAL/EMOTIONAL LEADERSHIP–The student gives praise or encouragement to a member of the group.
* COERCIVE LEADERSHIP–A student gives negative feedback, or creates off-the-topic humor to disrupt the process, even momentarily.


* LEADERS–These students “run” all facets of the group, and initiate virtually all dialogue between members.
* FOLLOWERS–These students readily answer questions and participate, but usually only at the instigation of one of the leaders.
* NON-PARTICIPANTS–These students never offer information unless asked; they never volunteer for anything. However, they normally will do whatever task is assigned to them.

Amazingly, it was discovered that the only students who ever took significant leadership roles within the group, were those students who had been categorized as “leaders.” “Followers” sometimes showed some leadership characteristics, and always at the instigation of the leaders. “Non-participants” never took any leadership roles; they answered questions when asked while using the shortest possible answers, and they quietly did their work without any interaction with others.

What was fundamentally interesting, and most important when determining Cooperative Learning group roles, was that a student leader might show leadership in “task” areas one day, or “intellectual” or “social” areas the next. The leaders varied in their leadership roles depending on what other leader happened to be in their group on that particular day. However, in all cases, all leadership roles were fulfilled by those students previously characterized as leaders. A student classified as a “follower” or a “non-participant” never took a leadership role within the group.

The repercussions of these findings are central to the development of a good Cooperative Learning lesson or unit. For if only those students with personality styles that enjoy and seek leadership take leadership roles, then the previous espoused concept of passing around group leadership becomes increasingly problematic. For if you make a student with a “non-participant” personality style into the group leader for that session, at least one of three possibilities will probably result:

* The students with leadership personalities will take over the group process.
* The students with leadership personalities will exert their internal need for leadership by sabotaging the group in some way, often unconsciously. (See the description of “Coercive Leadership” above )
* The non-participant student forced into leadership will be so uncomfortable and distressed at this role, that either nothing will get accomplished, or he will allow those who enjoy leadership to take over the group.

In all situations, if a “non-participant” type of student is artificially forced into a leadership position, the group will not function in the way that you originally planned.
Rather than incorporating predetermined group “leaders,” a potential solution to this problem is to list tasks, or jobs, for the group to fill, and then let the natural group dynamics sort them out. For instance, you may tell a group that they need a spokesperson, a runner, a secretary, et cetera, and let them figure out who will do what job. You will find that in most cases, the group will distribute its leadership and task roles within minutes.

As an additional anecdote to this issue of group leadership, I had fun with the results of an extra cooperative learning lesson, one not included in the above study. In this lesson, among the various groups constructed, I ensured that three strictly homogeneous leadership groups were formed: one of all leaders, one of all followers, and one of all non-participants. The results were at times, humorous. The leaders group argued vehemently about who was going to do what task and cover what area. Finally, the students picked sections of the project out of a hat, and each worked on his own material–with no group cooperation or interaction. Since they were told that there was to be a group grade, many of the members covered areas assigned to other students, in addition to their own, figuring that they could do a better job! The followers had the best functioning unit, for within their own group, some had more leadership traits than others, and a natural hierarchy developed of leaders and followers. The non-participants each worked on the entire task, each on their own, with no feedback or discussion among the members of the group.


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