Leadership Is A Weak Social Force

In the “Robbers Cave Experiment” Sherif speculates that focusing on leadership to reconcile the differences between two groups is insufficient. I would even go so far as to characterize it as a “weak” type of social interaction that is not enough to counteract the “strong” social dynamics at play when there is conflict between two groups.

“Likewise, the alternative that exclusively emphasizes the role of leaders in charge misses the mark, because the effectiveness of leaders, even though weighty, is not unlimited. Leaders are not immune to influences coming from the rank and file, once a group trend gets rolling, even though initially the leaders might have been largely responsible for starting the trend.”

(Sherif, Harvey, White, Hood, & Sherif, The Robbers Cave Experiment, 1988 p.151)

Simply put, exhortations by leaders to “get along” or to aspire to some higher social imperative like “cooperation” just can’t compete with the hatreds and biases (both I would argue are “strong” forces) that arise from inter group conflict.

This implies that if we are going to resolve a conflict between two groups, reconciling the leaders of the two groups with each other is not sufficient to resolve the conflict. This presumes that there is already a significant level of conflict. There has to be something more than just leadership: in Sherif’s case he recommends the creation of multiple overlapping superordinate goals.

In fact, the Robber’s Cave Experiment flips the whole equation on its head and implies, if not outright asks, the reverse question: can we reconcile two groups if the leaders of those groups do not cooperate with each other at all? Is it enough to simply put the superordinate goals in place without obtaining the cooperation of the team leadership? This is what Sherif is actually able to successfully accomplish in his experiment (which makes it all the more astonishing in my opinion).

All of this poses interesting questions about the role of leadership in reconciling inter group conflict. Can leaders actually control the tiger they hold by the tail? Sherif suggests they can’t. Keep that in mind the next time you are dealing with organizational silos. Don’t get stuck in the trap of thinking that if the leadership could just get along, that the situation would resolve itself. It very likely would not. Once two groups really polarize – when they really start to hate each other, then leadership isn’t enough. Just look at our recent debt ceiling fiasco in congress.

I rest my case.

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