What Is Social Leadership?

Jack Prot

The term social leadership has been used in a technical sense by researchers for over fifty years. More recently it is being used by community organizations and others to describe a much broader perspective on people-centered activities aimed at creating a better world. Beyond this, I would suggest that it has great potential for use within the technical vocabulary of leadership studies, as a framework for the construction and evaluation of more comprehensive ways of understanding what it means to lead.

The concept originally emerged in the context of developmental psychology and educational theory as the opposite, or perhaps the complement, of task leadership. What this means is that when working with others, we demonstrate a propensity either to get the job done or to ensure that others are included. Presumably, personal success is dependent upon developing capacity along both of these lines, but our immediate concern is with the social aspect of establishing and maintaining interpersonal relationships.

Outside the academic environment, the term is being used within the context of training programs offered by various, predominantly Christian, religious organizations to reflect a commitment to creating a healthier, more peaceful and prosperous world, with a happier and more fulfilled citizenry. Adherents dedicate their lives and talents to doing what they can, as much for others, as with others. Inspiration for this mission and the development of a sense of stewardship are found through submission to God.

What I am proposing here is the adoption of the term social leadership within management and organizational studies as a way to capture the idea that the leadership process entails more than just the mechanics of achieving goals through the management of tasks and people. It must also take into account human values, both ethical and aesthetic.

Ethical values are usually expressed in terms of what we think is right, or good. For many people, their understanding of right and wrong has been provided for them through their association with formal religious institutions, but this does not have to be the case. Philosophical systems can provide a set of socially compelling standards to which an individual is willing to commit, without requiring a concomitant commitment to some transcendent authority.

Aesthetic values refer to such concepts as harmony and beauty, elements that are essential to our perception and appreciation of the world around us, but which we might not think have any influence on the ways we manage, or lead. Curiously, it has become a common saying among those who study leadership, that it is like beauty. You can’t describe it, but you know it when you see it.

Within the business and management context, the concept of social leadership has precursors in the notions of social marketing and corporate social responsibility. The former concept refers to the use of conventional marketing tools to alter people’s behavior towards a social good, such as increased physical activity, stopping smoking, or volunteering in the community. The latter term refers to the idea that corporations need to balance their concern for making a profit, with an equal concern for the well-being of their customers and employees. This notion has been extended more recently to include a concern for the welfare of the planet, thus establishing the so-called triple bottom line that blends economic, social, and environmental factors, in a quest for sustainability.

I am not putting social leadership forward as a new theory of leadership. There are already too many of those. Rather, I am suggesting that the term be used to identify a framework within which existing and emerging theories can be analyzed and evaluated for their comprehensiveness and as a measure of the extent to which the insights provided by such theories can be implemented in practice.

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