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Leaders and Followers: A social network

This paper looks at the relationship between leaders and followers.  The particular reference point is the interaction of leader power and the social groups within an organization.

Author: David Johnson

This paper looks at the relationship between leaders and followers.  The particular reference point is the interaction of leader power and the social groups within an organization. The action of the leader influences the formation of social groups within an organization however there is an inherent cohesion within social groups that often dictate how the leader is perceived.  The use of the five power bases conferred by position (legitimacy, reward, coerciveness) or personal (referent, charismatic) has to be viewed from the lens of the social network in which the leader and follower operate.

Keywords: Power, leader, follower, social groups, social network,

A discussion of a leader’s power and influence cannot be complete without some understanding of the follower side of the equation.  Kouzes and Posner (2002) identify four characteristics that are consistently, over time and in various countries, at the top of surveys asking what people want to see in a leader.  Honesty, competency, forward looking and inspiring are the four traits that appear time after time.  Other trait researchers have identified three essential elements for success as self-confidence, integrity, and drive (Daft, 1999). 

McGinn and Long-Lingo (2001) accept these personal traits as one dynamic of exercising the power matrix. They identify many components including sensitivity, flexibility, energy, focus, tolerance for conflict, expertise, charisma, linguistic ability and a track record as competencies that demonstrate a leader has these characteristics.  McGinn and Long-Lingo (2001) characterize a second element of power as positional.  Where a leader stands in the hierarchy of an organization and what resources he/she can command, help identify the strength of positional power.  Most discussions identify the five types of leader power (French and Raven, 1960, cited in Daft, 1999) as legitimate, reward, coercive, expert and referent.   McGinn and Long-Lingo (2001) assert that the discussion of power cannot stop at analyzing how a leader can use the positional powers of legitimacy, reward and coerciveness or at the ability of the leader to demonstrate personal power through honesty (referent) and competency (expert) but must ultimately look at these through the lens of the social system and the social relations of the leader.  They suggest that power is a social relationship, it is situational and that social systems are dynamic, so the relational power a leader builds within the organization plays an important part in their success. There are many aspects of this social network that impacts the effectiveness of a leader. These range from the types of relationships, to the development and interaction of various groups in the structure and often of most importance how the leader chooses to deploy and use the power and influence strategies at his/her command. 

Social networks surround and embrace each of us on a multitude of levels from families through to global systems.  The same principles apply to all social networks including those we find in the workplace.  Kadushin (2000) in a discussion paper describes the interpersonal environment as first order zones, those who we have a direct relationship with, second order zones, those connected to us through our associates within the interpersonal environment (first zone), and so forth.  The effectiveness of these relationships begins to lose potency after the third order.  Kadushin(2000) describes two types of networks that have some special influences on the work environment.  Primary groups or cliques are those that one identifies with most strongly and that can exert influence through sanction of those that violate the norms of the group.  Social circle members are from a variety of groups within the organization and have things in common other than work experiences.  They are equally supportive of members or equally quick to sanction but their impact is more diffused although the power of the members determines the force of support or sanction within the organization.

There are a variety of reasons social networks form in the workplace including having to perform supporting tasks, performing similar tasks, proximity, age, gender, interests, attitudes and a multitude of other factors. Leadership-Member Exchange Theory (LMX) finds that leaders develop separate exchange relationships with each of their followers (Pierce and Newstrom, 2003). These relationships can develop into a configuration of “in-groups” and “out-groups” with the in-group (Bruins, 1999) sharing several interests, attitudes and/or ambitions of the leader.  Although this process is not detrimental in and of itself, the method the leader chooses to use their power vis-à-vis the in-group is the critical point.  If the in-group is favoured and rewarded the resulting schism between the in and out group members can be harmful.

The range and type of relationships and the types of groups that coalesce around these relationships are both important considerations but it is the choice of timing and deployment of influencing tactics that has the greatest effect on a leader’s success.  The influencing tactic selected depends in large part on the style of the leader and the situation.  Tannenbaum and Shmidt (1958, cited in Daft, 1999) found that the extent that leaders should be “boss-centered” (transactional) and “subordinate-centered” (transformational) is dependent on organizational circumstances.   DuBrin (2004) shows analyses that suggests transformational leadership is closely identified with expert and referent power, and demonstrates a loose relationship with legitimate and reward power.  Transactional leadership is identified with coercive power.  The situation and the style of the leader contribute to the choice of hard (sanctions) or soft (reasoning) influencing strategies (Bruins, 1999). McGinn-Long-Lingo (2001) examine these personal influence strategies under the titles of ‘push tactics’ which include persuasion (reasoning and proposing) and assertion (stating expectations, evaluating, using incentives and pressures) and ‘pull tactics’ such as bridging (involving, disclosing, listening) and attracting (common ground, sharing of vision).   Handy (1993) discusses the influencing strategies under the heading of “seen and unseen”.  His work contributes the idea of influencing by manipulating the ecology and he introduces magnetism as another unseen factor.  

An element that has to be considered is the desired outcome the influencing strategy.  Handy (1993) and McGinn and Long-Lingo (2001) identify three actions leaders want to obtain when the use an influencing strategy; compliance, commitment and internalization.  Like the continuum of boss-centered to subordinate-centered leadership styles these three follower positions can be present at different levels and at different times depending on the organizational situation.


Bruins, Jan (1999). Social power and influence tactics: a theoretical introduction- Social Influence and Social Power: Using Theory for Understanding Social Issues. Journal of Social Issues, Spring.  Retrieved January 14, 2017 from

Daft, Richard (1999) Leadership: Theory and Practice Fort Worth TX, Harcourt Brace

Dirks,Kurt (2000) Trust in Leadership and Team Performance: Evidence from NCAA Basketball. Journal of Applied Psychology reproduced in Pierce, John L,, Newstrom John W., (2003) Leaders & the Leadership Process (3rd edition)  Boston MA: McGraw-Hill Irwin

DuBrin, Andrew (2004) Leadership; Research Findings, Practice and Skills (4th edition)  Boston MA: Houghton Mifflin

Handy, Charles (1993), Understanding Organizations, New York, NY: Oxford Press Chapter 5 On Power and Influence reproduced in Politics in Organization Coursebook (2004) University of Gueplh

Kadushin, Charles (2000, May) A Short Introduction to Social Networks: A Non-Technical Elementary Primer, A working background paper for The CERPE Workshop.  Access:

Kouzes, James, Posner, Barry (2002) The Leadership Challenge (3rd edition) SanFrancisco, CA: Josey-Bass

McGinn, Kathleen, Long-Lingo, Elizabeth (2001) Power and Influence: Achieving your Objectives in Organizations. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Publishing.  Reproduced in Politics in Organization Coursebook (2004) University of Gueplh

Pierce, John L,, Newstrom John W., (2003) Leaders & the Leadership Process (3rd edition)  Boston MA: McGraw-Hill Irwin

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