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.