How to Be an Effective Group Leader

1 – On Being Chosen Leader  

You have been elected to serve as a leader. You may be pleased about this and looking forward to the role. On the other hand, you may feel honored by being so named but anxious about the assignment and fearful that you will be unable to handle the job successfully. Bear in mind that any person selected to lead a group, club, committee, organization, lodge, or whatever, would likely feel much the same way. There is some comfort in the knowledge. 

Some person or group selected you for leadership responsibility because they had confidence in your personal qualifications for leadership. You should not consider this confidence of others as a burden, for they do not expect perfection of you. Examine the qualities that others might have seen in you as a potential leader. How can these qualities be used to guide the group you will lead? 

Accept the fact from the beginning that everything will not run smoothly. Don’t fantasize problems but simply acknowledge to yourself that conflicts will occur, as they always do when persons of different opinions work together for common goals. Actually, we would not want matters any other way. If all members of the group held a single opinion or belief, there wouldn’t be any need for group action. As Walter Lippman once stated, “Where everyone thinks alike, no one thinks very much.” 

During some sessions, you will leave with a glow of satisfaction, while others will fill you with great discouragement. Accept these ups and downs as part of the game. You will make mistakes. Rest assured that even after many years of leading groups you will still make mistakes. The day you start expecting perfection will be the beginning of endless frustration and disappointment. You will move closer to effective leadership as long as you are able to learn from your mistakes. 

2 – Preparing For Leadership 

Developing magnetism 

A group of highly skilled behavioral scientists attended a seven-state meeting in Omaha, Nebraska, during the spring of 1971 to develop techniques for implementing the recommendations of the 1970 White House Conference on Children and Youth. They were professional men and women—psychiatrists, psychologists, sociologists, attorneys, judges, social workers—all well educated and experienced. Each of the participants stated his or her views fluently. The meeting was inundated with intellectualism. But it was getting nowhere. Some ingredient, a magnetism of some sort, was needed to pull this group together and give it new life. 

It appeared for a time that the conference might come to a close with little accomplished. The representatives of the federal government were showing signs of distress; they might have to return to Washington with an empty bag despite their elaborate planning. Suddenly a short, nondescript-looking man jumped to his feet. His clothes didn’t fit him especially well and were by no means in the latest style. The participants seemed mildly curious about his appearance and behavior— at first. But, as he spoke, rapidly and forcefully, his speech colored by rural colloquialisms, the dignified participants listened attentively. Within two minutes, this small man had the group in the palm of his hand. 

Why? He was the first one to radiate enthusiasm! The intellectuals had radiated dignity and bearing but no sparks. 

3 – Influencing Others

The knowledge of the processes involved in influencing people has increased considerably in recent years. The leader’s use of that knowledge is actually a matter of recognizing and applying these behaviors in daily life.

Some of the most important of these processes are (1) imitation; (2) suggestion; (3) exhortation; (4) persuasion; (5) publicity; (6) reliance upon the logic of events; and (7) the demonstration of devotion. It is difficult to generalize as to the particular times when you, as a leader, should use one or more of these methods. Usually several of these influences are in operation at the same time. However, an awareness of how each works can be helpful.  


Imitation is not an active process exercised on the group by the leader. As we have seen with youth gangs in our large cities, the members of the group will often- times imitate the leaders’ phrases, mannerisms, clothing, and lifestyle. This also has occurred with members of fan clubs of movie idols and sports heroes. These become identifying factors within the group, providing a sense of unity and familiarity. While we cannot overlook the importance of these aids, particularly when working with youth, it is a shallow leader who places too strong a reliance upon the forces of imitation to assist him in achieving group unity. 


4 – The First Meeting 

At your first meeting, you should feel as if you were entertaining a group of people in your home, welcoming them and making them feel comfortable. Make an effort to keep the names straight. 

Greet each person as he or she arrives and exchange pleasantries. At a large meeting, this may not be possible, but at least you can greet those you know and introduce yourself to those whom you have not met. 

If you have been named chairman of a committee consisting of persons you don’t know, get as much information as possible about them before the meeting. Ask the person who appointed the committee members. You don’t have to conduct an investigation, but it would be advisable to know of members’ general back- grounds, interests, and training. 

Occasionally one finds himself asked to serve as chairman of a committee, moderator of a panel, head of a commission, and so on, without knowing the agency or organization planning the meeting. At other times, you may be acquainted with the organization but unfamiliar with the program or project. In such instances, it would be helpful to contact the person responsible for the meeting and request additional information. They often may assume you are acquainted with their work when actually you are not. 

Planning activities 

If you are meeting with a group of children or adolescents for the first time, it would be helpful to plan on some definite activities for the first meeting. If it is an interest group, such as a craft class or recreation group, the type of activity is obvious. But if it is a new group—such as those established from time to time by churches, schools, YMCAs and YWCAs—it is wise to plan projects that are not too complex or which would take too long to complete. 

5 – Creating Atmosphere 


Your attitude as a leader is all-important in creating an atmosphere in which the group members feel free to express themselves. Problem-solving is much more effective in such a climate. Participants will be more likely to develop their potentiality when a relaxed and friendly climate prevails. 

It is nearly impossible to overemphasize the importance of your friendly and relaxed attitude as a leader, and it is helpful to remember that the outward expression reflects the inner feelings. 

We have to be willing to allow for differences in leaders, of course. Some people are just naturally careless about physical arrangements. They may be friendly, out- going persons who care a great deal about the feelings of others. They may be excellent leaders but neglect details. Another leader might be very particular about room arrangements, well organized, and a stickler for details but find it difficult to relate to people. Therefore, again, it is difficult to set up absolute standards. Yet it is safe to say that a clean, well-organized meeting room reflects more favorably on the leader than a room which is a mess at meeting time. If you are the kind of per- son who is likely to overlook the importance of the condition of the meeting room, it might be well to appoint a committee or ask others to handle the physical arrangements. 

Seating arrangements are important because they affect the degree of communication between the participants. A room arranged like a classroom forces the participants to look at the backs of heads instead of faces. Communication depends not only on the voice, but also on facial expressions, gestures, and other clues. Your group may be too large to do other than a classroom arrangement, but to the extent possible, try to arrange the group in a circular fashion so that the members can at least partially face each other. 

6 – Establishing Goals 

You will be doing your job as a leader when the members of your group are working together toward a goal which they believe is desirable. What kinds of goals do the members desire? What kinds of goals appeal to the members of your particular group? In what way are the goals of organized groups determined, maintained, shared, altered? How do you as a leader know that your goals are attractive? How are you able to determine this? 

Different goals 

Bear in mind that there may be different sets of goals that will determine the framework within which you must function. You will have your own goals; these bear the stamp of your philosophy of life, and one of the reasons, certainly, why you have accepted the leadership of the group in the first place. The sponsoring agency, institution, foundation, whatever, also has its purpose, reason for existence, and it has established policies and procedures within which it expects its leader or leaders to operate. Then the group itself and the individual members have their goals. 

Goals may be different but they are not necessarily in conflict with each other. However, there are bound to be times when the goals of the members may come into conflict with policies of the agency. A local chapter may disagree with the decisions of the parent organization. Your task as a leader is to develop the best possible interrelationship between the members and the group, between the group and the parent organization when there is one, and between the group and the community. 

Within the context of these various restrictions, the leader must have sound objectives for goal realization. One of the primary duties of the leader is to make a critical study of objectives. This is particularly true in those organizations that provide some service to the community or state. 

There are short-range and long-range objectives. A Scout troop may decide to hold a weekend camp-out. This is a short-term goal. The long-range goal is to help boys grow into responsible manhood. The League of Women Voters may plan a study on the probate court. This is a short-term goal, whereas the organization’s long-term goal is to help people to become more knowledgeable citizens. 

A goal can be defined as the direction of effort of an associated group of people. But it is of some help to distinguish between primary and secondary goals, i.e., be- tween basic and supplementary objectives. 

 Business staff meetings 

One of the most difficult meetings to conduct is the business staff meeting. As the leader, you will be required to muster all your skills used in other types of meetings and be prepared to cope with situations peculiar to this type of group. 

With the members of your staff you are the chief, the leader, the boss, and they are under your supervision. In a very real sense you are set apart from them regard- less of how democratic you endeavor to be. 

The members of your staff are geared differently than you; they have not had the responsibility for the section, division, department, or the firm. While they may accept responsibility for their own tasks, they, nevertheless, assume that the major problems are yours. Therefore, they are not used to thinking in terms of overall pol- icy. 

You may have discovered that your staff is more competitive than cooperative. They may be accustomed to struggling for position, for promotion, working to move ahead of the other staff members. As a result of this, there are bound to be suspicions, jealousies, conflicts which deter teamwork. There are likely to be feelings of insecurity on the part of some staff members as well as repression of feelings. 

You may find that your staff members are suspicious of your efforts to bring them into the planning stages, thinking, perhaps, that you are trying to pick their brains and taking the credit for it, or get them to do your work. Such attitudes may not exist or, if so, to only a slight degree and only occasionally, but it is well, nevertheless, to be alert and prepared to cope with these situations when they do occur. 

As you think about your staff and your relationships with them, it would be well first to direct your attention to yourself. Ask yourself how effectual you are. How do you express your leadership? Would you be able to work efficiently under a leader such as yourself? 

There are three types of leaders, frequently found in professional and business organizations, who have a difficult time working with others. 

One of these types is the dictator, an able, efficient man who is dedicated to his responsibility but who finds it necessary to operate as a one-man show. Often- times these individuals are persons who started the business or built the department. They started alone and since have found it difficult to surrender any authority or delegate responsibility to others. They have to approve everything; nothing is done unless they give the green light. They never ask; they tell. What usually hap- pens is they build corps of “yes men” around them because those are the only types of people who can work for them. 

 The successful leader 

Do we cherish democracy because we believe in human beings as individuals; that people should participate in making decisions which will affect them individually and collectively; that individuals should have an opportunity to express their creative abilities; that people working together on common problems will come out with a better solution than any one of them could obtain alone? 

Unless we, as interested and active citizens, learn to use the techniques of working together more effectively, many of the values which we hold dear in the democratic way of life will not be realized. 

We must define and evaluate our beliefs about democracy. We must identify the behaviors which are essential for effective individual and group participation, and we must plan programs that will develop these behaviors as important outcomes for ourselves and others. 

Some of the obstacles which have prevented the group process from operating effectively are the tendency to accept policy from others without question; the attitude that group planning is too much trouble and too time consuming; delegating the power to another and letting him work it out; and unfamiliarity of leaders with the group process. 

Working effectively with others calls for a special kind of leader—one who helps the group to achieve its purposes and goals and the members to grow as a result of these experiences. 

As a democratic leader, you are concerned with helping the members to work together, to make decisions, and to share responsibility. There will be times when you will give counsel and guidance to individuals and to the group. You may be a stimulating force, bringing about change in attitudes and interests, and you may be a teacher showing people how to do things and providing information in a creative way. 


As a successful leader, you will have a definite planned approach. The things that you will do are deliberate, conscious efforts to influence the interaction so that goals can be realized. These efforts are generally referred to as techniques. They are something you say or do, such as a nod of your head, a gesture with your hand. If these things are done for the effect on an individual or a group, they are techniques. But a technique can also be something you refrain from doing. There will be times when you will not be sure of the reaction of the group and you may have to experiment with different techniques in order to gain the response you are seeking. 

While applying these techniques, however, you must be sure that you are not trying to manipulate others. Techniques should be used only to initiate, or not initiate, chain reactions which will create a climate in which the work of the group can take place. 

In the midst of great social upheavals, permanent goals seem elusive, but one goal has remained unchanged, the recognition of the need for considerate and understanding persons. This is, above all else, the mark of a true leader. 


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