In observations he recorded in the 1830s, the French political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville was struck by the importance of civic associations in the fabric of American life. Unlike aristocratic nations, where rulers often had the authority to do what they wanted without question or deliberation, the “independent and feeble” citizens of a democratic nation had to “learn voluntarily to help one another.” They agreed “to combine in order to act,” forming groups — for all manner of purposes and causes — whose collective capacity exceeded that of an individual.
Writing about America’s voluntary organizations in the 1940s, the historian Arthur Schlesinger noted, “It seems paradoxical that a nation famed for being individualistic should provide the world’s greatest example of joiners.”
And now, 21st-century scholars are still trying to understand the role these groups play in a democratic society.
Marshall Ganz — a Kennedy School lecturer who has spent decades working with groups advocating for workers’ rights and civil rights — takes up that question in “The Relationship of Leadership Quality to the Political Presence of Civic Associations.” Ganz and his coauthors focused on two long-recognized functions of American civic organizations: their role in advocating for members’ interests in the public arena, while also serving as “Tocquevillian schools of democracy, linking citizens to politics and equipping them with the skills of democratic citizenship.”
These two elements are closely intertwined, Ganz explains. “The act of participation broadens people’s understanding and enables them to find a voice they wouldn’t have as individuals. And all that turns into the power to influence the world around them.” Yet he and his collaborators notice a disconnect in the relevant social science literature. Previous research had mostly considered the two roles of these groups separately, looking at one or the other but not how they related to each other. “This paper brings these two strands of research together,” says Wellesley College political scientist Hahrie Han, the study’s lead author. They did it by focusing on leadership, which lies at the point of intersection between the educational and activist roles of citizen groups. In particular, the authors showed that if civic associations develop leaders by building the democratic skills of their members, they are more likely to accomplish their objectives in the public arena.
Far from being an abstract dissertation on the subject, the paper revolves around a case study of the Sierra Club, which was selected in part because it is a large federated organization, composed 64 state level chapters and 400 local groups all working within a common national framework. That facilitated comparisons regarding the different groups relative successes and how leadership contributed to that success.
“Leadership matters a lot in groups like these, because they’re not big top down hierarchies with everyone following orders from the top,” says Ganz. “You normally have a lot of autonomy at the state and local level. And in such cases, the quality of leadership at every level really counts.” Curiously, other researchers hadn’t focused much on this question, he adds, “which is why we looked at it.”
To gather its data, the team trained volunteers to facilities discussions among executive committee members from the Sierra Club groups and chapters, trying to determine how leaders spent their time and whether they did so in a manner that best served the organization’s priorities. Many insiders had assumed that their ability to achieve their public goals depended on the political friendliness of the local community. “We found that mattered much less than people thought,” Han says. “Instead, we found that higher levels of political presence were associated with investing in developing a community of leaders”— leaders who were both skilled and devoted to their cause.
“What came out of this was a much more team-based, interdependent picture of leadership than I had previously thought,” Ganz says. “Leadership is not about being the heroic guy who stands up to the tanks or bulldozers. It’s about being someone who can mobilize others to collaborate effectively.”
— by Steve Nadis