12 Identifying Leaders

Learning Objectives

  • Define and describe leadership
  • Distinguish between the various perspectives on why and how people become leaders
  • Identify strategies for leading virtual teams

Leadership is one of the most studied aspects of group communication. Scholars in business, communication, psychology, and many other fields have written extensively about the qualities of leaders, theories of leadership, and how to build leadership skills. It’s important to point out that although a group may have only one official leader, other group members play important leadership roles. Making this distinction also helps us differentiate between leaders and leadership (Hargie, 2011). The leader is a group role that is associated with a high-status position and may be formally or informally recognized by group members. Leadership is a complex of beliefs, communication patterns, and behaviors that influence the functioning of a group and move a group toward the completion of its task. A person in the role of leader may provide no or poor leadership. Likewise, a person who is not recognized as a “leader” in title can provide excellent leadership. In this chapter, we will discuss some approaches to the study of leadership, leadership styles, and leadership and group dynamics.

Why and How People Become Leaders

Throughout human history, some people have grown into, taken, or been given positions as leaders. Many early leaders were believed to be divine in some way. In some Indigenous cultures, shamans are considered leaders because they are believed to be bridges that can connect the spiritual and physical realms. Many early kings, queens, and military leaders were said to be approved by a god to lead the people. Today, many leaders are elected or appointed to positions of power, but most of them have already accumulated much experience in leadership roles. Some leaders are well respected, some are feared, some are hated, and many elicit some combination of these reactions. This brief overview illustrates the centrality of leadership throughout human history, but it wasn’t until the last hundred years that leadership became an object of systematic study.

Woman holds a coffee mug that says "like a boss"
We often think of leaders as those in designated roles — elected officials or perhaps our managers or bosses. However, not all leaders are designated, and not all of those in leader roles exhibit leadership. (Credit: Brooke Lark/My Favorite Mug/Unsplash)

Before we move onto specific approaches to studying leadership, let’s distinguish between designated and emergent leaders. In general, some people gravitate more toward leadership roles than others, and some leaders are designated while others are emergent (Hargie, 2011). Designated leaders are officially recognized in their leadership role and may be appointed or elected by people inside or outside the group. Designated leaders can be especially successful when they are sought out by others to fulfill and are then accepted in leadership roles. On the other hand, some people seek out leadership positions not because they possess leadership skills and have been successful leaders in the past but because they have the drive to hold and wield power.

Many groups are initially leaderless and must either designate a leader or wait for one to emerge organically. Emergent leaders gain status and respect through engagement with the group and its task and are turned to by others as a resource when leadership is needed. Emergent leaders may play an important role when a designated leader unexpectedly leaves. We will now turn our attention to three common perspectives on why some people are more likely to be designated leaders than others and how leaders emerge in the absence of or in addition to a designated leader.

Leaders Emerge Because of Their Traits

The trait approach to studying leadership distinguishes leaders from followers based on traits, or personal characteristics (Pavitt, 1999). Some traits that leaders, in general, share are related to physical appearance, communication ability, intelligence, and personality (Cragan & Wright, 1991). In terms of physical appearance, designated leaders tend to be taller and more attractive than other group members. This could be because we consciously and/or subconsciously associate a larger size (in terms of height and build, but not body fat) with strength and strength with good leadership. As far as communication abilities, leaders speak more fluently, have a more confident tone, and communicate more often than other group members. Leaders are also moderately more intelligent than other group members, which is attractive because leaders need good problem-solving skills. Interestingly, group members are not as likely to designate or recognize an emergent leader that they perceive to be exceedingly more intelligent than them. Last, leaders are usually more extroverted, assertive, and persistent than other group members. These personality traits help get these group members noticed by others, and expressivity is often seen as attractive and as a sign of communication competence.

The trait approach to studying leaders has provided some useful information regarding how people view ideal leaders, but it has not provided much insight into why some people become and are more successful leaders than others. The list of ideal traits is not final, because excellent leaders can have few, if any, of these traits and poor leaders can possess many. Additionally, these traits are difficult to change or control without much time and effort. Because these traits are enduring, there isn’t much room for people to learn and develop leadership skills, which makes this approach less desirable for communication scholars who view leadership as a communication competence. Rather than viewing these traits as a guide for what to look for when choosing your next leader, view them as traits that are made meaningful through context and communication behaviors.

Leaders Emerge Because of the Situation

The emergent approach to studying leadership considers how leaders emerge in groups that are initially leaderless and how situational contexts affect this process (Pavitt, 1999). The situational context that surrounds a group influences what type of leader is best. Situations may be highly structured, highly unstructured, or anywhere in between (Cragan & Wright, 1991). Research has found that leaders with a high task orientation are likely to emerge in both highly structured contexts like a group that works to maintain a completely automated factory unit and highly unstructured contexts like a group that is responding to a crisis. Relational-oriented leaders are more likely to emerge in semistructured contexts that are less formal and in groups composed of people who have specific knowledge and are therefore be trusted to do much of their work independently (Fiedler, 1967). For example, a group of local business owners who form a group for professional networking would likely prefer a leader with a relational-oriented style, since these group members are likely already leaders in their own right and therefore might resent a person who takes a rigid task-oriented style over a more collegial style.

Leaders emerge differently in different groups, but there are two stages common to each scenario (Bormann & Bormann, 1988). The first stage only covers a brief period, perhaps no longer than a portion of one meeting. During this first stage, about half of the group’s members are eliminated from the possibility of being the group’s leader. Remember that this is an informal and implicit process—not like people being picked for a kickball team or intentionally vetted. But there are some communicative behaviors that influence who makes the cut to the next stage of informal leader consideration. People will likely be eliminated as leader candidates if they do not actively contribute to initial group interactions if they contribute but communicate poorly, if they contribute but appear too rigid or inflexible in their beliefs, or if they seem uninformed about the task of the group.

The second stage of leader emergence is where a more or less pronounced struggle for leadership begins. In one scenario, a leader candidate picks up an ally in the group who acts as a supporter or lieutenant, reinforcing the ideas and contributions of the candidate. If there are no other leader candidates or the others fail to pick up a supporter, the candidate with the supporter will likely become the leader. In a second scenario, there are two leader candidates who both pick up supporters and who are both qualified leaders. This leads to a more intense and potentially prolonged struggle that can actually be uncomfortable for other group members. Although the two leader candidates don’t overtly fight with each other or say, “I should be leader, not you!” they both take strong stances in regards to the group’s purpose and try to influence the structure, procedures, and trajectory for the group. Group members not involved in this struggle may not know who to listen to, which can lead to low task and social cohesion and may cause a group to fail. In some cases, one candidate-supporter team will retreat, leaving a clear leader to step up. But the candidate who retreated will still enjoy a relatively high status in the group and be respected for vying for leadership. The second-place candidate may become a nuisance for the new emergent leader, questioning his or her decisions. Rather than excluding or punishing the second-place candidate, the new leader should give him or her responsibilities within the group to make use of the group member’s respected status.

Leaders Emerge Based on Communication Skill and Competence

This final approach to the study of leadership is considered a functional approach because it focuses on how particular communication behaviors function to create the conditions of leadership. This last approach is the most useful for communication scholars and for people who want to improve their leadership skills because leadership behaviors (which are learnable and adaptable) rather than traits or situations (which are often beyond our control) are the primary focus of study. As we’ve already learned, any group member can exhibit leadership behaviors, not just a designated or emergent leader. Therefore leadership behaviors are important for all of us to understand even if we don’t anticipate serving in leadership positions (Cragan & Wright, 1991).

The communication behaviors that facilitate effective leadership encompass three main areas of group communication including task, procedural, and relational functions. Although any group member can perform leadership behaviors, groups usually have patterns of and expectations for behaviors once they get to the norming and performing stages of group development. Many groups only meet one or two times, and in these cases, it is likely that a designated leader will perform many of the functions to get the group started and then step in to facilitate as needed.

Leadership behaviors that contribute to a group’s task-related functions include providing, seeking, and evaluating information. Leaders may want to be cautious about contributing ideas before soliciting ideas from group members, since the leader’s contribution may sway or influence others in the group, therefore diminishing the importance of varying perspectives. Likewise, a leader may want to solicit evaluation of ideas from members before providing his or her own judgment. In group situations where creativity is needed to generate ideas or solutions to a problem, the task leader may be wise to facilitate brainstorming and discussion. This can allow the leader to keep their eye on the “big picture” and challenge group members to make their ideas more concrete or discuss their implications beyond the group without adding his or her own opinion.

Leadership behaviors that contribute to a group’s procedural-related functions help guide the group as it proceeds from idea generation to implementation. Some leaders are better at facilitating and managing ideas than they are at managing the administrative functions of a group. So while a group leader may help establish the goals of the group and set the agenda, another group member with more experience in group operations may step in to periodically revisit and assess progress toward completion of goals and compare the group’s performance against its agenda. It’s also important to check in between idea-generating sessions to clarify, summarize, and gauge the agreement level of group members. A very skilled and experienced leader may take primary responsibility for all these behaviors, but it’s often beneficial to share them with group members to avoid becoming overburdened.

Leadership behaviors that contribute to a group’s relational functions include creating a participative and inclusive climate, establishing norms of reflection, and self-analysis, and managing conflict. By encouraging participation among group members, a leader can help quell people who try to monopolize the discussion and create an overall climate of openness and equality. Leaders want to make sure that people don’t feel personally judged for their ideas and that criticism remains idea-centered, not person-centered. A safe and positive climate typically leads to higher-quality idea generation and decision-making. Leaders also encourage group members to metacommunicate or talk about the group’s communication. This can help the group identify and begin to address any interpersonal or communication issues before they escalate and divert the group away from accomplishing its goal. A group with a well-established participative and inclusive climate will be better prepared to handle conflict when it emerges. Remember that conflict when handled competently can enhance group performance. Leaders may even instigate productive conflict by playing devil’s advocate or facilitating civil debate of ideas.

Table 1: Key Leadership Behaviors
Task Functions Procedural Functions Relational Functions
  • Contributing ideas
  • Seeking ideas
  • Evaluating ideas
  • Seeking idea evaluation
  • Visualizing abstract ideas
  • Generalizing from specific ideas
  • Goal setting
  • Agenda making
  • Clarifying
  • Summarizing
  • Verbalizing consensus
  • Generalizing from specific ideas
  • Regulating participation
  • Climate making
  • Instigating group self-analysis
  • Resolving conflict
  • Instigating productive conflict
Source: Cragan & Wright (1991)


To be most effective, groups or teams need a sense of community. A community can be defined as a physical or virtual space where people seeking interaction and shared interest come together to pursue their mutual goals, objectives, and shared values (Palloff & Pratt, 1999). For our purposes, the setting or space can be anywhere, at any time, but includes group or team members and, as you might have guessed, a leader. The need for clear expectations is key to the effective community, and it is never more true than in an online environment where asynchronous communication is the norm and physical interaction is limited or non-existent. Increasingly we manage teams from a distance, outsource services to professionals across the country, and interact across video and voice chats daily. The effective leader understands this and leverages the tools and technology to maximize group and team performance.

Three people sit in a conference room meeting with one person joining by video conference.
Whether a team meets face to face, virtually, or a combination of both, a leader leverages the tools at their disposal to maximize effectiveness and build a sense of community within the team. (Credit: Christina/WOCinTechChat/Unsplash)

From the opening post, welcome letter, or virtual meeting, the need to perceive acknowledgment and belonging is present, and the degree to which we can reinforce these messages will contribute to higher levels of interaction, better engagement across the project, retention throughout the mission, and successful completion of the goal or task. Online communities can have a positive effect by reducing the group member’s feeling of isolation through extending leader-to-team member and team member-to-team member interaction. Fostering and developing a positive group sense of community is a challenge, but the effective leader recognizes it as an important, if not critical, element of success.

Given the diversity of our teams and groups, there are many ways to design and implement task-oriented communities. Across this diversity, communication and the importance of positive interactions in each group is common ground. The following are five “best practices” for developing an effective online community as part of a support and interaction system for your team or group:

  1. Clear expectations: The plan is the central guiding document for your project. It outlines the project information, expectations, deadlines, and often how communication will occur in the group. Much like a syllabus guides a course, a plan of action, from a business plan to a marketing plan, can serve as an important map for group or team members. With key benchmarks, quality standards, and proactive words of caution on anticipated challenges, the plan of action can be an important resource that contributes to team success.

  2. Effective organization: Organization may first bring to mind the tasks, roles, and job assignments and their respective directions but consider: Where do we interact? What are the resources available? When do we collaborate? All these questions should be clearly spelled out to help team members know when and where to communicate.

  3. Prompt and meaningful responses: Effective leaders are prompt. They know when people will be available and juggle time zones and contact information with ease. Same-day responses to team members is often the norm, and if you anticipate longer periods of time before responding, consider a brief email or text to that effect. The online community is fragile and requires a leader to help facilitate effective communication.

  4. A positive tone in interaction and feedback: Constructive criticism will no doubt be a part of your communication with team members, but by demonstrating respect, offering praise as well as criticism, and by communicating in a positive tone, you’ll be contributing to a positive community. One simple rule of thumb is to offer two comments of praise for every one of criticism. Of course, you may adapt your message for your own needs, but as we’ve discussed previously, trust is the foundation of the relationship and the student needs to perceive you are supportive of their success.

Review & Reflection Questions

  • What is the difference between a leader and leadership?
  • In what situations would a designated leader be better than an emergent leader, and vice versa? Why?
  • How do the trait, emergent, and functional approaches to leadership differ?
  • Do you have a clear ‘leader’ in your group? How did that person become the ‘leader’?
  • How can you exhibit leadership in virtual teams?


  • Bormann, E. G., & Bormann, N.C., (1988). Effective small group communication (4th ed.). Burgess International Group.
  • Cragan, J. F., & Wright, D. W. (1991). Communication in small group discussions: An integrated approach (3rd ed.) West Publishing.
  • Fiedler, F. E. (1967). A theory of leadership effectiveness. McGraw-Hill.
  • Hargie, O. (2011). Skilled interpersonal interaction: Research, theory, and practice. Routledge.
  • <Palloff, R. M., & Pratt, K. (1999). Building learning communities in Cyberspace: Effective strategies for the online classroom. Wiley.
  • Pavitt, C., (1999). Theorizing about the group communication-leadership relationship. In L. R. Frey (Ed.), The handbook of group communication theory and research (pp. 313-334). Sage.

Authors & Attribution

The majority of this chapter is adapted from “Leadership in Small Group Communication” in the book Communication in the Real World from the University of Minnesota. The book is adapted from a work produced and distributed under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-SA) by a publisher who has requested that they and the original author not receive attribution. This work is made available under the terms of a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license.

The section “Developing Virtual Leadership” is adapted from “Group Leadership” from An Introduction To Group Communication. This content is available under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0) License without attribution as requested by the work’s original creator or licensor.



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Small Group Communication Copyright © 2020 by Jasmine R. Linabary, Ph.D. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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