Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Leadership Theory and Gang Persistence

A cautionary note anchors this discussion. This discussion in no way promotes or justifies the formation and/or survival of gangs and/or gang related activities.

After reading for class, I turned on the TV and began to watch a program called Gangland on the History channel. The program primarily focused on the origin and workings of the Bloods, a gang based in New York with smaller affiliations predominately in New Jersey and Baltimore. In addition, the program also focused on the key leader of the gang, Omar Portee aka O.G. Mack. Different explanations were offered for the persistence of gangs despite efforts by multiple facets of law enforcement to dismantle these organizations. It is evident that the leadership and structure of gangs are instrumental in explaining the persistence of not just the Bloods but also various gangs across the country. Several aspects of charismatic leadership as well as specific characteristics of followers may provide insight to the origins of gangs and answer the questions of how and why they survive.

Choi explains key aspects of charismatic leadership, in which the leader is effective in addressing the followers’ need for power, affiliation, and achievement. In 1993 in Rikers Island, one of New York City’s largest jail facilities, O.G. Mack created the United Blood Nation (UBN) as a way to protect African American inmates from the Latin Kings, which was the most prevalent gang in the jail system at the time. Based on Choi’s conclusions, O.G. Mack was able to capitalize on African American inmates’ need for power in relation to that of the Latin Kings, need for affiliation with a group of inmates who shared common views, and finally their need for achievement within the prison system. Another critical aspect of gang formation coincides with the notion that followers are committed to the organization and to a purpose or principle (Kelly, 1988). In this particular case, Blood members were committed to the ultimate purpose of the organization, which was to create and maintain a network of protection. Although that was the primary purpose of the gang, as members were paroled and returned to their communities, the purpose of the organization steered in the direction of personal and to a lesser extent communal economic achievement. With this new purpose, the new wave of gang members were drawn in due to the leaders’ ability to effectively satisfy the needs of members who felt alienated from society based on racial and/or socioeconomic status. For these gang members, their affiliation with the UBN provided a source of empowerment and fostered their personal ideals of achievement. In a sentence, several aspects of charismatic leadership with respect to gang leaders are apparent in the formation of gangs.

In light of the discussion above, law enforcement officials usually pay close attention to the leaders of gangs with the perception that eliminating the source will inevitably dismantle the entire organization. Despite these efforts, which usually result in the incarceration of gang leaders, gangs continue to persist. The conclusions about the leadership relationship between leaders and followers as proposed by Rost offer a possible explanation for gang survival. Rost argues that followers can become leaders and vice versa in any leadership relationship. He also argues that only people who are active in the leadership process are followers. Accordingly, gang members who are active in the leadership process, though not formally recognized as leaders, have the potential to become the next leader in the event of absent leadership. The fluidity of the leadership continuum exhibited in the structure of gangs allows for gang members to assume leadership, thus sustaining the organization. It is pertinent to note that as a result of this leadership continuum, the potential for gangs to become institutionalized is not unlikely. Therefore despite changes in leadership, gangs are able to survive for years and in some cases decades.

Considering the leadership and structure of gangs, they should be perceived as having an organizational hierarchy similar to that of corporate companies. Within this framework, gangs have both an established chain of command and interchangeable leader and follower positions. In an organization where leadership is not static and there is a leadership relationship with active and effective followers, eradicating such an organization may be more complicated. Therefore, it is a na├»ve line of reasoning that eliminating the leadership of gangs will dismantle the organization. Similarly, firing the CEO and Board of Trust, will not dismantle an entire company if there are followers that are effective in assuming leadership. As many studies on gang suppression suggest, it may prove more effective to focus on prevention and/or remediation programs that address prospective and current gang members’ need for power, affiliation, and achievement.


  1. Interesting observation of the behavioral modes of gangs. Somewhat with envy, i have to say that you can often apply theories to everyday cases with ease. Enjoy reading your post:)

    It reminds me of a well-known poetic line in China, which was written more than a thousand years ago : When fighting against a calvary,shoot your arrows at their horses first;When confronted with a gang,try to capture their leader first (my translation).

    This old-time saying advocates a similar rationale lying behind the police's strenuous effort to take control of the gang leader: absence of strong leadership will bring the gang into consequential chaos, if only temporarialy,which will nonetheless make the gang easier to defeat.

    The point is that, bereaving a less institutionalized organization of its leadership will effectively weaken its function as a group, even though it will not definitely lead the whole structure to collapse.

    It calls my attention to the structural stability of different organizations:
    1.if an organization takes a radial structure, where the leader forms the absolute center, it is not very stable. Removal of the leader will at once break its subtle internal balance.
    2.If there're multiple interaction among members, leader-follower, follwer-follower, or even leader -leader(in cases of multi-leadership), the organization turns to be more stable. That's not difficult to understand. Just think of how much trouble you have to go through when clearing up a cobweb.

    To digress a little, when i recall the rest of the above-mentioned poem, i realise something interesting. The poet goes on to say:

    Once you can stop the invading force,stop unnecessarily killing more.

    Here the poet is trying to convince military leaders that it's unwise to measure one's victory by the number of casulties done on the antagonistic part. Very humanistic viewpoint.

  2. Interesting line of thought Dhruneanne, one that may go a good way in helping to understand gang involvement from the simple logic of leadership and followership.
    The application of effective leadership principals for criminal ends begs me to ask if leadership is indeed leadership sans moral bearing. Charasmatic though O.G. Mack may be, he is instilling members with a sense of power, involvement, achievement that leads to violence and criminal activity. I wonder as well whether gang followership is indeed good follwership, if they do not possess the ability to respond critically to the ethos and actions of the organization. Is there room for descent in a gang?

  3. That's a very good point Sheila! I don't know why I always stumble across Gangland on TV. But I came across another gang; I believe it was the Maniac Latin Disciples. This particular gang's leadership structure was radial (as you explained), which indeed did result in the collapse of the gang. It is clear that a more complex leadership structure will require more effort to disturb or dismantle the organization. That’s why I think a more effective strategy is to better understand the leadership structure of the organization to dismantle any gang.
    But I must add, although the Maniac Latin Disciples lost their leader, smaller gangs were formed (branching out from the larger gang). These smaller gangs did not have major impacts on the community with respect to the scale of violence and crime as the larger gang due to the lack of strong leadership. I believe gang formation is similar to the formation of cliques in high school. There will always be cliques in high school because of teenagers’ need to belong or fit in. Likewise, prospective gang members are looking for something or someone to satisfy their need for affiliation and empowerment. Therefore, the best way to end gang formation would be rehabilitation of current members and creating positive programs or organizations that attract prospective gang members.

  4. James, I whole-heartedly agree that gang followership is not good followership to any degree, if we identify morality as a defining characteristic of good followership. I grew up in a neighborhood and actually know several gang members (some very personally, I went to school with some). They truly believe and argue that they are good followers because they carry out orders from the top. They do not consider the morality of their actions because they believe more in the creed or mission, which does not mention or emphasize the morality of gang activity. Because gangs do not foster an ethical climate, I think gang members do not have the ability to recognize or blatantly choose to ignore the immorality of gang activity (not that this should be used as an excuse). In addition, if they are able to discern the morality of their actions, it may be more important for these members to be affiliated with an organization or feel empowered than to not participate in gang activity, which is required if part of the gang.
    It can be argued that there is room for descent but there is no disagreement among gang members because of group think. It is similar to what we see with child soldiers in some African countries. These children are trained to believe that their actions are justified. Before being forced to join an army, these children like young gang members are aware of what is right and wrong. However, the indoctrination of the creed, mission, goals, etc, causes them to justify the immorality of their actions. Group think is so prevalent there is no room for descent, if it comes at the cost of disrupting the cohesiveness of the group or organization (gangs in this case).


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.