Leadership and Social Distance

Emory S. Bogardus
University of Southern California

A LEADER is a person (1) who surpasses his fellows in achieving in some particular plane of activity, and (2) whose achievement is recognized by his fellows as being superior. A leader and his followers thus function in similar vertical planes of activity. They occupy, however, different horizontal levels of achievement within these vertical planes. Hence, there is vertical social distance between a leader and his followers, and horizontal social distance, for instance, between leaders in different types of activity.

By doing something better than his fellows a person comes to occupy a higher level than his fellows in some vertical plane of activity. Human activities may be classified into as many types or vertical planes, as there are different skills. Within each vertical plane the persons may be located at a given time on different levels of achievement—a small percentage low, a large percentage mediocre or average, and a small percentage high. The latter are leaders, and the distances between them and their followers represent leadership distances.

The level, or rating, of a person in a given vertical plane of activity depends as much if not more, on recognition, as on achievement. But achievement is recognized or not, according to its relation to what the group rates worth while. Group values thus are indications of the types of achievement that are likely to be recognized and of the kind of leaders that are likely to appear.

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Different types of achievement are rated according to different standards. In any group there is a scale of achievement ratings, and hence a person may try out for a high or low type of achievement. These variations in recognition that are accorded different skills by a group constitute a special type of leadership distances.

Vertical vs Horizontal Distances


But leadership distance usually implies social distance, despite the best efforts of the leader to the contrary. Achievement tends to set a person off from his fellows. The recognition ordinarily given a leader may take the form of rank, position, honors. But these social forms help to create or magnify social distances.

These distances are either vertical or horizontal. The former imply that persons occupy pedestals of different degrees or heights of recognition; the latter indicate, for instance, that some persons occupy one set of achievement pedestals, and other persons, another set of achievement pedestals of similar social rank or value.

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Common defeats and common losses, on the other hand, reduce all to a common level of fellow-feeling and eliminate both vertical distance and horizontal distance. Unsuccessful "competitors," no matter how worthy, feel a loss of social status; they may be tempted to blame the successful leader for their own lack of success, or set them-selves apart from the successful leader and thus deliberately though unwittingly, create social distance.

But the social distance that is created when one member of a group becomes a leader may be partly overcome if there be a high degree of group loyalty, or of pride in the leader on the part of followers. To the extent that the members of a group are able to see that their status is lifted by the achievement of the leader, to that extent is the social distance between themselves and their leader overcome. Unfortunately, however, personal antagonisms blind possible followers to the value of the achievements of leaders.

Moreover, to the degree that all the members of a group become leaders in various types, or vertical planes, of activity, to that degree is the status of each person preserved or built up, and to that degree is the rise of social distance unnecessary. Social distance is furthered when certain persons are condemned to low status levels in all phases of group life and others become universally dominant. Sometimes inferiority complexes account for low status, and sometimes social rules are responsible.

Although leadership means vertical social distance, the opposite does not necessarily follow. Extensive vertical distance does not connote leadership-followership relations; it may remove possible leaders too far from possible followers. The latter do not own the former.

In a democracy the possibility of upward vertical mobility is great. Leadership is competitive. In hierarchical society social distances are fixed and more or less un-

( 176) -changeable. But in a democracy it is not unthinkable for a leader to train certain of his followers so that some may ultimately surpass him and take his position of leadership from him.

It is possible to classify the vertical planes of achievement or "skills" ranging on one side from an extrovertive vertical plane, such as skill in boxing, to an introvertive plane at the other extreme, such as composing esoteric poetry. A person occupying a high place of achievement and leadership in one vertical plane, usually occupies a lower plane in a few other fields, and a very low place in other fields.

We are accustomed to think of leadership as being coterminous with personality, but this judgment is not wholly correct. An individual member of a group with a developed personality may be a leader in one field and a follower in several other fields at the same time. Leader-ship, thus, is related to vertical planes of achievement as much as to personality.


Extensive horizontal social distance (distance between peers), or no horizontal distance are both inimical to leadership. In fact, the greater the horizontal distance the less likely that vertical distance will mean leadership. Even though other factors be quite equal, the horizontal distance between Fundamentalists and Modernists is so great that a person of high rank in one of these vertical planes of achievement has little constructive influence in the other fields of activity. A high-ranking anarchist has little leadership influence over an outstanding capitalist, and vice versa.

Horizontal distance may exist between leaders in different vertical fields of achievement, or it may occur within a

( 177) single field. In the former case it is likely to be due to lack of social contacts and understanding. In the latter type of situation it is often due to social competition.

Complete absence of horizontal distance, however, may eliminate leadership. Intimacy dissipates the prestige halo that gives a person a margin of leadership. To the extent that leadership rests on sheer prestige, it is easily punctured by intimacy.

Intimacy or the absence of social distance often destroys respect for a leader, and as a result the special influence of a leader is gone. Familiarity dissipates due recognition. Acquaintance with a leader's weaknesses paralyzes respect for his strong or leadership points. Closeness to a mountain obscures a full view of its entirety; only an unattractive section may be visible. A certain measure of horizontal social distance is necessary in order to give that perspective which is required for adequate valuation. Social proximity may cause little weaknesses to be exaggerated and real ability to be overlooked.

Leadership, however, may flourish even when horizontal distance is almost nil. It is maintained under two sets of circumstances : (1) When the leader exerts influence by virtue of achievement in easily discernible, objective, and highly valued skills, such as physical skills. Superior skill in surgery, in aviation, or in football overcomes the handicaps of social proximity fairly well. (2) Where intimacy is accompanied by a deep-seated and unflagging affection, leadership is easily maintained. Great affection for a pa-rent or a teacher will cause a son or daughter or a pupil to remain s faithful follower despite gross weaknesses in the life and character of the leader.

Even though social distances, either horizontal or vertical, be chasmic, leadership influence may operate. Pseudo-followership may take place under these untoward

( 178) conditions for policy's sake, for fear of losing social position, or for sake of future gain.

When a person's achievements in one vertical plane of activities give him prestige and special influence in other fields of activity, he becomes a pseudo-leader in the latter connections. Lack of careful discrimination on the part of followers generally accounts for pseudo-leadership.

In conclusion, it is submitted that an approach to the study of leadership may be made through the measurement of both horizontal and vertical distances. To the extent that social distance can be charted, light will be thrown on the underlying conditions of leadership.


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