Social Psychology Leadership Development in Fraternal Organizations

The practice of student leadership development is experiencing significant growth amongst universities across the country. I haven’t been in the professional game very long, but I have noticed that instruction in leadership, despite its various theories, tends to pull from a number of other academic areas who have provided decades of research on the topic (psychology, management, sociology, organizational behavior, history, political science, etc.). Thinking about an independent study course I took last summer, I found myself struggling with a scholarly dilemma: Who should carry the burden of leadership development? If exploring leadership concepts is truly a hodge-podge of many different academic realms, shouldn’t we explicitly reference the origin of certain individual or group processes, rather than discuss them in a diminished or hybrid form? On the other hand, there are folks within fraternity and sorority life who claim that fraternal organizations do leadership development better than anyone else. So the topic is certainly worth exploring.

Over the past two years, I have had the luxury of taking a number of psychology courses through my Higher Education with an Emphasis in College Teaching degree. I was able to select coursework that focused upon industrial-organizational psychology and social psychology. While both offer a wealth of information on the topic of leadership, for the purposes of this article, we will focus upon the latter. My goal is to identify some core concepts in social psychology that directly apply to leadership development for students. It is my belief that most professionals in the higher education industry capitalize upon these concepts in the classroom, in workshops, and in programs rather indirectly; I would like to remove the sheer and be more overt about the comparison(s). Isolating just a few concepts will be suitable to helping translate this material to our communities.


A good place to start in the teaching of conformity comes from the clip from the movie, Dead Poets Society, where Robin Williams asks the students to gallivant through the courtyard. He goes on to describe how every student should make a sincere effort to develop their own stride, rather than adopting the cultural norm. However, despite the power of that clip to convey the basics of conformity, discussing conformity in the general sense does not do the topic justice; it is much more complicated than that.

Traditionally, when we think about the idea of conformity, most of us would assume that conformity is a sign of weakness. For example, if someone is called out for conforming to the general group, it usually means that they relented and were unable to retain their individuality amongst a group. In an attempt to better understand the focus of conformity, Song et al. (2012) broke conformity down into four subgroups: abidance, compliance, obedience, and herd behavior. Without going into too much depth on each concept, the first three have advantages within a group context (often called rational conformity). Especially when working with sorority/fraternity members where organizational cultures play such a significant role, it is crucial to help students identify and understand the various instances of rational conformity. Alternatively, herd behavior (irrational conformity) is the instinctual behavior by some to follow without thinking critically about the situation (i.e. simply following someone’s lead without a second thought). Knowing the difference between rational and irrational conformity can help students understand when it is appropriate to conform the norms of a chapter or become a deviant. Although we spend a lot of time preaching to students about sparking positive change in their organizations/communities, in many cases, conforming to a group norm is downright necessary to maintain credibility or influence within the group. Those types of distinctions can be made with a deeper exploration into the research on conformity. As you can see, the struggle of conformity for students is not as black and white as we might think.


Found in the work on personal and individual differences, the ideas of displacement and scapegoating make sense in a number of organizational contexts. Routinely, we discuss with young leaders the challenge of harnessing their influence over others (or lack thereof). Especially when we discuss the positional form of leadership, it is almost impossible for leaders to avoid the inevitable build-up of frustration at one point or another. This could be a by-product of many issues, including apathy within the organization, a loss of control over individual members, or even a result of personal feelings gone awry. When we are unable to express our aggression in a direct or healthy way, we go the route of displacement or scapegoating. Displacement is the idea that we redirect our anger onto someone else (rather unfairly) when we cannot address the original source (Jones, Dovidio, & Vietze, 2013). Scapegoating takes it one step further with the knowledge that we retaliate directly against a person or source that we know is powerless to respond (this is usually due to a power continuum of sorts). Students in Greek organizations can see these types of social disputes occurring on a regular basis, including reconciling when other members when they elicit a high level of frustration. Knowing how and why displacement and scapegoating occurs can help us address these issues directly with our Greek leaders. The terms also have relevance in discussions of diversity, bigotry and racism.

Social Comparison

In the basic sense, Festinger (1954) referred to social comparison as the cognitive process where individuals compare their social characteristics to others within their community. For example, to even the playing field and save face amongst the group, we exaggerate outperformers, who happen to be individuals that do better than us at certain tasks. Sometimes those individuals perform at such a level that cannot be paralleled by the rest of the group, which is why we will decide to exalt those outperformers altogether (Alicke et al., 1997). A standard of constant social comparison can cause us undue stress and frustration, which naturally evokes negative perceptions of others.

For many fraternity/sorority members, I imagine that this sentiment of wide-spread social comparison strikes true. Instead of taking pride in their own accomplishments, many chapters choose to repeatedly find ways to measure their own success against the successes or failures of others. This philosophy becomes particularly problematic within communities that are attempting to implement large-scale cultural change. If an all-star chapter takes the torch and rises above the rest of the community to lead a particular change of philosophy, the individual members of that high-performing chapter likely experience increasing backlash from other organizations. This vicious process is a live, real-life demonstration of a number of organizations exalting the outperformer. Inevitably, it comes down to the attitude of that outperforming chapter and how they treat the rest of the community if the change is to come to fruition. Despite its appeal amongst students, our challenge as professionals is to find ways for students to avoid blatant social comparison.

This social psychology phenomenon is also particularly applicable to the growing field of digital identity leadership development. As we continue to innovate in how we educate students in fraternal communities about developing positive digital brands or identities, it is worth noting that most students are unknowingly engaging in nonstop social media social comparison, which negatively affects self-esteem and self-worth. By helping students become aware of this level of social comparison, it can perhaps alleviate some of the potential emotional pain and loneliness that can arise via social media.

Social Identity Theory of Leadership

“Social identity theorists have found that people have a natural tendency to categorize others into groups on the basis of similarities and differences” (Ruderman & Ernst, 2010, p. 15). That simple quote summarizes the topic of social identity theory and how it applies to leadership development: a process where people come together based upon perceived shared characteristics. In addition, Hogg, Knippenberg, and Rast (2012) explained that prototypical leaders (leaders who fit within the chosen identity of the group) will experience more success, are more supported by their followers, and command more trust. With this in mind, how do we help students better understand the prototypical characteristics of their organizations, so that they can become more successful?

In my limited professional experiences, the social identity theory of leadership is not one that has found roots amongst the student leadership development realm. In all reality, the entire theory is built around social influence, which encapsulates much of what our contemporary practitioners would refer to as important in any leadership context. It is my belief that if we could utilize the social identity theory in leadership instruction, we can assist students in understanding the forces at play within a given organization, which will lead to a deeper knowledge of how to capitalize upon influence in a positive way. At the least, it can help others visualize the various identities that accumulate within a group setting. Finally, the social identity theory of leadership can better help us understand how some student development professionals are able to connect with students, while others experience significant difficulty in that realm.


Alicke, M. D., LoSchiavo, F. M., Zerbst, J., & Zhang, S. (1997). The person who outperforms me is a genius: Maintaing perceived competence in upward social comparison. Personality Processes and Individual Differences, 73(4), 781-789.
Festinger, L. (1954). A theory of social comparisons processes. Human Relations, 1, 117-140.
Hogg, M. A., Knippenberg, D. v., & Rast III, D. E. (2012). The social identity theory of leadership: Theoretical origins, research findings, and conceptual developments. European Review of Social Psychology, 23, 258-304.
Jones, J. M., Dovidio, J. F., & Vietze, D. L. (2013). The psychology of diversity: Beyond prejudice and racism. West Sussex, UK: Blackwell.
Ruderman, M. N., & Ernst, C. (2010). Finding yourself: How social identity affects leadership. Leadership in Action, 30(1), 14-18.
Song, G., Ma, Q., Wu, F., & Li, L. (2012). The psychological explanation of conformity. Social Behavior and Personality, 40(8), 1365-1372.


By Kyle Hickman


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