Source Book for Social Psychology


551 Sociology; Social Psychology

144. Mental Traits of Leaders1

No account of the social behavior of man would be complete without giving attention to the factor of prestige and leadership. The relation of the leader to the masses, the factor of personal ascendency in social groups, has been a frequent subject of both history and literature. It was once customary for enterprising debating societies to consider the question: "Do Great Men Make History or Does History Make Great Men?" While the present writer feels that this is somewhat akin to the ancient hen or the egg controversy or the more recent foolish separation of heredity from environment, nevertheless serious attention has been given this problem. Carlyle, Emerson, and Froude, to mention but three of the nineteenth century writers, had much to say in defense of the Great Man thesis. Certainly the writings of Stirner and Nietzsche gave impetus to the notion. More latterly the work on individual differences following Galton, Pearson, Cattell and Terman has made prominent the idea that superior ability plays an important function in social processes. Ward and Galton, in fact, carried on something of a controversy over the whole matter of ability versus opportunity, the former holding that cultural forces far outweighed any innate individual differences. The psychologists following Galton’s lead have, on the whole, tended to see in superior ability the key to progress and invention while most sociological writers follow Ward and take the other position.

No doubt the truth lies between these extremes. Much of the difficulty has been that each side offered a simple particular formula to explain a complex phenomenon. The view taken in the present volume is perhaps more adequate since it would recognize individual differences in ability: it would realize the importance of social interstimulation and interaction; and finally, it would take into account the culture factor as well. Thus the social process is not one dimensional, it is rather three dimensional including the factors: the individual, the social group and the cultural patterns.

Before introducing the materials a word may be said concerning the terms leadership and prestige. The one is often used to indicate the uniqueness and individual quality of the person who is the pacesetter of the group. The other rather implies the power and position accorded an individual by the group. In fact, prestige and leadership go hand in hand together, so that we have employed both words here, with the distinct connotation just noted.

The opening papers by Thomas and Stein give the setting of leadership in the larger social process. Emerson’s discussion on the uses of great men while not stated in modern psychological or sociological terms is one of the most incisive analyses of the factors making for leadership and prestige in our language. Cooley carries the analysis of mental traits of leaders further into the social psychological field, while Gowin indicates briefly the relation of leadership to crisis. In an earlier section we noted this last point and the reader may refer again to the paper by Prince (Chapter V).

As an illustration of physical differences between certain types of leaders and ordinary men, a selection from Gowin is included which shows that executives, on the average, are heavier and taller than the average men. Perhaps in the case of intellectual and artistic leadership this physical factor is of less importance.

Chapin’s paper presents an analysis of leadership in reference to a number of groups within a community. The overlapping of leadership is very evident. The person who steps out ahead in one group and takes a place of superordination is pretty apt to take a somewhat similar place in any other group to which he belongs.

In the second section are a group of papers dealing more particularly with the prestige factor. The selection from Leopold gives the history of the word prestige. It must still be evident that there is much of the mystery-man about many leaders. At least the masses project such notions on to the leader. Le Bon’s paper discusses kinds of prestige.

Cooley shows how leadership rests upon certain incipient movements in the bulk of the group which the leader crystallizes. There is again an interplay of factors, not a simple one-dimensional cause and effect situation.

Michels shows how much the masses venerate leaders, how they seem to need idols and persons whom they can worship. Le Bon’s paper on leaders and faith indicates how the leader establishes the beliefs and attitudes of the crowd. Cooley carries this notion further to show that the leader serves as an ideal symbol for the masses. There is also emulation as well as identification of the led with the leader. And Lipsky shows how authority grows by its ancient and sacred position and how the individual who is a leader for a crowd is really a synthetic person, the creation of legend, myth, and stereotype.

The quotation from Mackay shows how prestige-bearers (leaders) affect conventions of all sorts. This is plainly evident in modern fashions.

Leadership depends for its power on the use of words and phrases which touch off the deeper emotions and interests of the masses. The paper by Abdul Majid brings this clearly before us. The paragraph from Mr. Leadbetter about Mrs. Besant is a fine example of verbalism surcharged with emotion and little else. And yet it is this which moves people to action. Apparently the more abstract, the more mystical, the more verbalistic a writer or speaker is, so long as these words stir the emotions, the better he is liked. This fact is brought out by Schwarz. Finally the persuasion of the crowd by the leader is one of the appeal to unconscious attitudes and beliefs, not to reasoned objective facts. Overstreet lays down twenty short rules in regard to public speaking which indicates the necessity of playing upon the audience in terms of some of the appeals we have discussed.

If we ask what are the mental traits that distinguish a leader, the only answer seems to be that he must, in one way or another, be a great deal of a man, or at least appear to be. He must stand for something to which men incline, and so take his place by right as a focus of their thought.

Evidently he must be the best of his kind available. It is impossible that he should stand forth as an archetype, unless he is conceived as superior, in some respect, to all others within range of the imagination. Nothing that is seen to be second-rate can be an ideal. The object of admiration may be Cæsar Borgia, or Napoleon, or Jesse James the train-robber, but he must be typical, must stand for something. No matter how bad the leader may be, he will always be found to owe his leadership to something strong, affirmative, and superior.

To be a leader, involves, on the one hand, a significant individuality, and, on the other, breadth of sympathy, the two being different phases of personal calibre, rather than separate traits.

It is because a man cannot stand for anything except as he has a significant individuality, that self-reliance is so essential a trait in leadership; except as a person trusts and cherishes his own special tendency, different from that of other people and usually opposed by them in its inception, he can never develop anything of peculiar value. He has to free himself from the domination of purposes already defined and urged upon him by others, and bring up something fresh out of the vague 552 under-world of sub-consciousness; and this means an intense self, a militant, gloating "I." Emerson’s essay on self-reliance only formulates what has always been the creed of significant persons.

On the other hand, success in unfolding a special tendency and giving vogue to it, depends upon being in touch, through sympathy, with the current of human life. All leadership takes place through the communication of ideas to the minds of others, and unless the ideas are so presented as to be congenial to those other minds, they will evidently be rejected. It is because the novelty is not alien to us, but is seen to be ourself in a fresh guise, that we welcome it.

It has frequently been noticed that personal ascendency is not necessarily dependent upon any palpable deed in which power is manifested, but there is often a conviction of power and an expectation of success that go before the deed and control the minds of men without apparent reason. There is something fascinating about this immediate and seemingly causeless personal efficacy, and many writers of insight lay great stress upon it. Most men of executive force possess something of this direct ascendency, and some, like Napoleon, Cromwell, Bismarck, and Andrew Jackson, have had it in pre-eminent measure. It is not confined to any class, however; but exists in an infinite variety of kinds and degrees; and men of thought may have it as well as men of action. Dante, Milton, Goethe, and their like, bear the authority to dominate the minds of others like a visible mantle upon their shoulders, inspiring a sense of reverence and a tendency to believe and follow in all the impressionable people they meet. Such men are only striking examples of what we are all familiar with in daily life, most persons of decided character having something imposing about them at times. Indeed, there is hardly anyone so insignificant that he does not seem imposing to someone at some time.

1 Reprinted by permission from C. H. Cooley, Human Nature and the Social Order, pp. 293; 294–96. New York. Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1902.


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Chicago: "Source Book for Social Psychology," Source Book for Social Psychology in Source Book for Social Psychology, ed. Young, Kimball, 1893-1972 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1927), Original Sources, accessed February 24, 2024,

MLA: . "Source Book for Social Psychology." Source Book for Social Psychology, in Source Book for Social Psychology, edited by Young, Kimball, 1893-1972, New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1927, Original Sources. 24 Feb. 2024.

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