Photo by David Sherer
Study Skills: David Sherer, Ed.D.
Typically, studies of leadership in education focus on "formal" leaders — the individuals who have official management roles, such as principals or superintendents. But doctoral student David Sherer is more interested in "informal" leaders — the people in a school or district who may or may not have official leadership roles but are nonetheless prominent, and often formidable, in the organization's social network. As he continues working toward his final dissertation options, he talked about social ties, seeking good will, and why it's important to find these leaders.
You've probably worked with colleagues who are very connected to others in your organization, who are very popular and are very informed about what's going on. I'm interested in these "hubs" of communication.
A lot of research suggests that people who are very wellconnected to others can exert a high level of influence on an organization's overall success.
In schools, this is important because it relates to the school's change strategy. Say you're a district superintendent. A classic way to initiate change is to rely on your formal chain of command. First you roll out your ideas to assistant superintendents and then your principals. You should be seeking out the informal leaders and educating them about what you want to do.
Why? You'll get feedback from these informal leaders before you even move forward. You want to get them on board. There's a lot of power and influence in that network.
It can be hard to identify these hubs using typical research strategies. You can't look at a formal organizational chart and find the informal leaders. This is where social network analysis comes in. Social network analysis lets you look at the social ties in an organization and find the people with the most social ties — the informal leaders.
I used social network survey data to identify the informal leaders in a reforming elementary school. Then I used interview data on these same individuals to understand their perceptions. I was interested in what these informal leaders had to say about changes that the school was experiencing because it's likely that informal leaders can play a large role in facilitating — or sabotaging! — school reform efforts.
I found that informal leaders were more opinionated than other staff members. They were more likely to say positive or negative things about new instructional programs. They were also more likely to say negative things about the principal. The informal leaders were formidable individuals. If someone wanted to make a change at the school, they would be wise to seek the goodwill of these hubs.