Tuesday, October 27, 2009

You Follow the Leader, Not the Power

While watching Gossip Girl on DVR last night, a particular scene reminded me of the concept of leadership and followers as well as the idea of leadership related to power and authority. Jenny Humphrey is a character that used to be an outcast in her school, but eventually turned things around through her perseverance and networking to end up as the “Queen Bee” of her preparatory school. Originally her character was sweet and innocent. She even came into the role of Queen Bee trying to change its position to be of the people and not over the people, but she quickly realized she either needed to lead and take power or someone else would.

In this episode in particular, Jenny was put in a position that was a power struggle. There is an area on a staircase that she and her “minions” claim as theirs and no one is supposed to sit above her on the steps. A former friend challenged her because he believed that she had changed into a person he could no longer follow. She originally asked him nicely to move down, but when he refused her minions poured the yogurt they purchased for Jenny on his head. When Jenny later apologized in a nonpublic setting and tried to explain how she had to appear powerful to continue respect she instead lost his respect.

This situation made me think of several theories including the idea of values and morals in leadership as well as followership and also theories in regards to authority and power. First, several theorists, believe that values are part of leadership. Heifitz (1994) mentions that “leadership has come to mean providing vision and influencing others to realize it through non-coercive means” (p. 15). Jenny and her followers did use coercive means to influence others behavior. While Jenny is at the “front of the flock of geese” as Heifitz describes as a way biology describes leadership, is she actually leading or influencing? Or is she actually the one being influenced by her “followers”?

According to Burns (1978), “the actual extent of the exercise of power is measured by the extent that intended results are realized” (p. 433). Jenny did eventually get the results of having the people move from the stairs, but was that her intention or her followers? While she has the title, which creates position power, the intentions and manner things are being handled show that she may not be the leader after all. She is not influencing others, but instead being influenced. She is not following her vision, but instead doing things to remain in power. She is following her followers, so her followers are actually more leaders than she is.

I believe this shows Jenny is not truly a leader in this situation. I found this episode to show that power and leadership do not necessarily go hand and hand, but influence and vision may be more indicators of strength in leadership.


  1. I think that there is a clear struggle here for Jenny to stay a leader but actually being able to be a leader. It seems that through your description you have identified that in order for her to keep her position, she needs to do certain things that may be detrimental or even the opposite of her vision. This reminds me a bit of politics in that someone must appease the public to keep their elected office while still trying to be themselves and communicate their vision. A balance here is critical, as without the position there is less of an opportunity to be a leader, but without vision one is not truly leading anything. I think that the trick here is to try and influence your followers to follow you despite perhaps having to displease them and to help them see the higher purpose (granted there is one). What do you think?

  2. I agree that political leaders do have the tough balancing act of different interests conflicting. I believe the true leaders are the ones who have the ability to influence people through empowerment and helping others to envision their vision. As Choi discusses these areas as traits for leadership, they seem to go hand-in-hand with leaders in history like Martin Luther King, Jr. When people instead choose to give into the others demands while losing their visions it begins to have an element of group think.

  3. Marisa,

    I agree that in this situation Jenny is not the leader. I thinks she is merely "playing the role" or standing as a body in the position of power. As you said, she is not determining the agenda. She is not trying to mobilize others to achieve the vision that she had. My question concerns her motives. Maybe her agenda has changed? Does she really want to change the position of this Queen Bee? If so, then I do not think she is acting as a leader. But if not and her agenda has honestly changed, maybe she is acting as the leader for her "minions".

    From an outsiders perspective it is hard to determine which "Jenny" is the dominant personality. I think that helps to determine to what extant she is portraying leadership.

  4. Marisa,
    I'm so glad you decided to post about Gossip Girl, because I am not ashamed to admit that I watch every week, and both Blair and Jenny's behavior always brings me back to discussions we've had about leadership. As exxagerated and dramatic as the show may be, it can provide some great examples of leadership (good or bad).

    What caught my attention was the fact that Jenny realized she had to do whatever it took to keep her followers. Without people viewing her as the leader, she would have no status. She kept talking about how she needed to appear powerful or else she would lose all influence. This reminds me of the Barnard and Chester (1938) reading about how authority is really determined by the subordinates. Jenny is nothing without her dedicated followers. If they stopped buying her yogurt every day, or if more people sat above her on the steps, then she would have no authority. Now, her level of authority would probably be more fluid than in a real organization, because she really has no purpose (maybe my opinion?). So her authority can come and go very quickly based on others perceptions of her status. In a real organization, the CEO still has the title of CEO even if those below him are not please and would not like to follow. In that case, they still have to follow to some extent so long as the leader has the title of CEO. Jenny has nothing once her followers decide her leadership is not wanted (and that it is just ridiculus to begin with)


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