Leaders and Followers
To the Editor:
Once again, COMMENTARY’S regular section, “The Study of Man,” provides your readers with a comprehensive and provocative review of the scholarly literature in a field of the social sciences. . . . Daniel Bell’s article, “‘screening’ Leaders in a Democracy,” in the April issue will be passed on to my students as one of the best summaries they could secure of the literature on leader selection. . . .
Somehow, our popular modern conceptions of a leader do not differ greatly from those of the Middle Ages. We have simply substituted an Arrow collar for shining armor, and the habit of looking people straight in the eye for a “noble mien.” Yet the leader of the Middle Ages was an aristocrat, and we are supposed to be living in a democracy. The medieval nobleman was born to his role of leader and he was trained so as to fit passably into the stereotype. The democratic leader is supposed to develop into a position of leadership out of interaction with his fellows.
While Mr. Bell brings out this distinction admirably, he does not develop the positive suggestion that some good studies of leadership might be made by asking the followers their opinions. In the army this was regarded as dangerous, and perhaps some industries would also thus regard it. Obviously, popularity is not the sole criterion of leadership, but most people can distinguish between those whom they like the best and those whom they regard as most effective. The existing studies have not yet fully explored the possibility of asking followers for their estimates of the traits making for effective and satisfactory leadership. One study, which Mr. Bell could not be expected to know about since it has not been released, was conducted by the Research Branch of the Army’s Morale Services Division during the war. It has pursued this method of determining the traits of a good leader from evaluations by those led—farther than have any other studies known to me.
Mr. Bell’s main service has been to question underlying assumptions in scientific research, assumptions that are unfortunately regarded as so fixed and inherent in the natural order of things that they cannot be examined. If there is to be development in social science, and indeed in all of social thinking, these deep-lying assumptions must be brought out, criticized, and modified.
Saint Louis, Missouri