Leadership is the ability to take initiative in planning, organizing, and managing group activities and projects.
In any group, there are individuals who instinctively step forward to organize people and events towards a specific goal. In organized activities, leaders can be designated, and, in informal contexts, such as a party, they may emerge naturally. What makes certain people develop into leaders is open to debate. Luella Cole and Irma Nelson Hall have written that leadership “seems to consist of a cluster of traits, a few inborn but most of them acquired or at least developed by contact with the environment.” Psychologists have also defined leadership as a mentality rather than an aptitude; the theory is that mentalities can be acquired and aptitudes cannot. Leaders can be considered idea generators or social facilitators. Leaders have their own leadership style; the style may be situation-specific: It may or may not transfer from one situation to another.
Child psychologists who study girls, particularly advocates of equal-opportunity education for girls, have remarked that girls with leadership potential often have to struggle with a variety of prejudices. Girls who display qualities traditionally associated with leadership abilities are often perceived as strident, bossy, or selfish rather than authoritative and assertive. The notion that leadership is a male characteristic is a gender bias. In a study of 304 fourth-, fifth-, and sixthgraders enrolled in 16 Girl Scout troops, Cynthia A. Edwards found that in an all-female group, leaders consistently display characteristic qualities such as organizational skills and independent thinking. Significantly, election to leadership posts was based on perceived managerial skills, whereas so-called feminine qualities, such as empathetic behavior, were generally not taken into account. However, in examining the research on mixed gender groups, Edwards found studies that show “that the presence of male group members, even in the minority, significantly suppresses the verbal expression and leadership behavior of female group members.” The fact that leadership behavior can be suppressed in girls adds credence to the assertion that leadership is partly a learned behavior.
A study by T. Sharpe, M. Brown, and K. Crider and colleagues measured the effects of consistent positive reinforcement for skills such as leadership, sportsmanship, and conflict resolution on two urban elementary physical education classes. The researchers found that the focus on positive skills caused a significant increase in leadership and conflict-resolution behavior. These results affirm the idea that leadership behavior can be non-competitive (different individuals exercising leadership in different areas). In fact, leadership can be a powerful factor in creating group cohesion.
See also Organizational psychology; Personality ; Personality development ; Social psychology .
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