Leadership in Student Groups

When you use group work—say, for a project or assignment—do you appoint group leaders? André (2011) was under the impression that most of us use leaderless groups, and that hunch was confirmed by a review of 104 Journal of Management Education articles in which teachers

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A female professor assists students working at a table in a library.

Leadership That Leads to Learning

Students look to teachers for leadership. The teacher is the person in charge—the course’s designated person in charge. That’s hardly revelatory, but how does leadership inform our practice? Do we think reflectively and critically about our roles as leaders? With a new academic year about

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When you use group work—say, for a project or assignment—do you appoint group leaders? André (2011) was under the impression that most of us use leaderless groups, and that hunch was confirmed by a review of 104 Journal of Management Education articles in which teachers designated group leaders just over 14 percent of the time.

For Those Who Teach from Maryellen Weimer

Leaders do emerge in groups, even if they aren’t appointed. Groups can’t function without them; in my classes I occasionally observed a group sitting in awkward silence waiting for someone to step up and help them get started. Half-hearted leadership leaves groups adrift, indecisive, and unable to manage the logistics of working together.

André builds the case for appointing leaders with these arguments. First, it’s an opportunity to teach leadership skills rather than let students develop them haphazardly. Second, there’s evidence that students (and the rest of us) consistently assume the same roles in groups. So, if a student regularly acts on leadership tendencies, then others in the group have no opportunity to develop leadership skills. If a student never fills leadership roles, it’s easy for that student as well as others in the group to draw conclusions about the lack of leadership ability. Likewise, always leading means never following, and leaders should have experiences in groups run by others.

Leaderless groups, especially ones populated by 18–22 year-old students, tend to be governed with norms that grow out of student culture—think friendly, laid-back, accommodating, and always agreeable. Social norms work for social groups, but in courses students should be learning how to function in professional groups. They’ve got work to do, and trying to get it done without leadership that helps the group get organized, work through a meeting agenda, guide decision-making, suggest task division, and monitor group process results in frustration and questionable work quality. André wraps up the case by pointing out that in most professional contexts, group leaders are appointed.

That’s a convincing set of arguments, but appointing leaders presents a range of logistical challenges. Designating a leader in a five-person group still leaves four students without leadership opportunities. André rotates leadership in four-person groups, with each group member taking the lead in one of four separate assignments. And if leadership development is the goal, that requires instruction on the relevant skills. André’s article illustrates the careful planning and time commitment necessary to make leadership a focused part of the group experience.

If significantly developing leadership skills is not a viable objective, teachers should still talk to students about the need for leadership—how it can that motivate commitment, develop cohesion, and advance the work agenda. A qualitative analysis (Gillespie et al., 2006) of interviews with a group of upper-division students enrolled in a program that offered group experiences in multiple courses found those students had narrow conceptions of leadership that frequently equated it with telling group members what to do. Students in this study described leadership as something they had to take on reluctantly, uncomfortably, and with complaints about the extra work involved.

After even a modest amount of time in a group, students usually agree who’s providing the leadership, but often they can’t explain why or how that person became the leader. It happens without public announcement and through displays of leadership behaviors; potential leaders suggest how the group might start, ask for introductions, or open discussion of the task. Leaders are confirmed in their role if the group follows their leadership—that is, endorses or acts on what the leader asks or suggests.

Leadership tasks can be shared in groups. Sharing them effectively requires that students have knowledge of the leadership tasks the group needs, perform some of those tasks, and willingly let others perform the rest. Leaderless groups depend more on group member flexibility; if multiple persons have leadership aspirations, there will be tension, confusion, and conflict in the group until the quest for leadership is relinquished and the leadership of another acknowledged. Similar disruption occurs when an appointed leader fails to lead and others try to provide leadership but without the power the designation imparts.

Should you appoint group leaders? Like so many instructional answers, it depends. What are your goals for the group work? What do you want students to learn—individually about how they function in groups and collectively about how groups function? What experiences in groups will best accomplish those goals?


André, R. (2011). Using leadered groups in organizational behavior and management survey courses. Journal of Management Education, 35(5), 596–619. https://doi.org/10.1177/1052562911401592

Gillespie, D., Roos, J. M. T., & Slaughter, C. (2006). Ambivalence about leadership: A qualitative study of undergraduate students’ participation in multiple small groups. Journal on Excellence in College Teaching, 17(3), 33-49.