This section is from the book "Principles Of Sociology With Educational Applications", by Frederick R. Clow. Also available from Amazon: Principles of sociology with educational applications.
How do the various members of a group contribute to the formation of its social mind? The belief is widely held, supported by some eminent writers, that the social mind is a sort of average of the individual minds. Lecky, the English historian, maintained that democracy means government not even by the average but by the lower classes. During the past century the tendency has been toward a higher estimate of the social mind, as shown by both the theory of politics and the practice of it. But it has remained for Professor Cooley to show the fallacy of the old aristocratic view. Anyone can find this out for himself who will observe how some small group whose operations he can follow makes up its mind: a group of girls gathered to make fudge, some boys translating their Latin together, the junior class picking out a team to play the seniors at basketball. Far from following the average of intelligence and ability, the group seeks out, by discussion,-or trial, or otherwise, its most competent members, and these it follows or puts forward as its representatives. Those who know nothing about the matter in hand ask advice of others who know; those whose judgment has been found reliable in the past are listened to with respect; the most competent members show up one another's good points, sometimes unwillingly; the less competent members have little to gain and much to lose by putting themselves forward, and in the end ability is pretty certain to have a preponderating influence in determining the result. Occasionally, of course, a member is misjudged by his fellows, but probably no more often than he is by his teachers.
Cooley makes a useful distinction between general public opinion and special or expert opinion. General public opinion, and by that he means the opinion which prevails in a numerous population, sees things in a large way only; it changes slowly, and can give attention to only a few questions at once - ordinarily to only one. All the details of knowledge and action must be left to special public opinion. Thus a class votes to have a picnic. It may go so far into the arrangements as to decide on the time and place. More likely, however, it will appoint a committee to look up these matters and all the other necessary information. The committee may be required to report one or more plans for the class to consider, or it may be appointed with power to act so that no further action by the class as a whole will be necessary.
But the mind of a large group is not made up when an inner group of the most competent members has been found. Each member of this inner group has his individual opinion which differs in some respect from the opinion of every other member. Some one opinion must stand out preeminent. It may be a composite of several opinions, but it must appear finally as one - clearly defined, free from inconsistencies. Picking out this final opinion, formulating it, and presenting it so that it will win approval is nearly always the work of a leader. The leader may not be the one who knows the most; he may select the opinion of some specialist, or form a composite of several opinions. He must see the situation clearly; he must propose a plan which others can understand and put into execution. In order to inspire confidence he must be positive - showing no doubt that his plan is the best; he must be fearless - ready to meet any opposition, including opposition to the adoption of his plan; he must have resources - ability to overcome opposition and get results; he must be trustworthy - careful of the welfare of others, not likely to make selfish use of what others put into his hands. Along with these qualities he may be egotistical and selfish, but provided his self is big enough to take in the group, his "I" is always "we"; in other words, he must be loyal. The leader is the one with the nervous system which responds best to the stimuli that play through the group and who therefore best sums up in his own personality all the power of the group.
Public opinion, expert opinion, and leadership are so closely intertwined that they are best illustrated together.
A number of girls here at school thought it would be the finest stunt to give a hallowe'en party at M.'s boathouse. They asked B. (a teacher) and he advised them to consult with the president. The president said he had discussed the question with others and deemed it unwise to give the party.
In a high school seven girls of wealthy families tried to run things in arranging for the annual "prom." For a while they had control; the others, though in the majority, were afraid to go ahead and assert their power. But when it became known that the seven girls were to appropriate the decorations for another party of their own, the others became angry. A meeting was held in which the faculty assisted. The public opinion of this group was such that no one of the seven girls appeared at the prom.
At B. several years ago the principal was out on the playground almost every day, coaching the boys in their games and sometimes playing with them. The boys learned from him the real meaning of sport, got a clearer idea of justice and fair play, and showed in many ways that the instruction outside of the schoolroom was worth as much as that inside, and perhaps more. But one day the school board notified the principal that such undignified action must stop, that it was unbecoming in one of his position, that the boys called him by a nickname when out of hearing, and that the parents had objected. But he, instead of complying with the wish of the board, continued his outside work. For this he received the lasting gratitude of the pupils, the praise of the county superintendent, and a high recommendation from the state inspector. The district flatly refused to reelect him, but he secured the principalship of a high school, and is now ranked as one of the able educators of the state.
In this case the public opinion of the village was uninformed. The principal took the responsibility of appealing from it to the expert opinion of his superior officers and to the more intelligent public opinion of the county and state.
Of the girls in a sewing circle some were wealthy and some were from the working class. The girl who started the circle was one of the latter. She did beautiful work and was always ready to show the others how it was done. She was always the first one to try something new. The rest of us looked up to her as our leader.
We boys wanted to see a show. Our leader found a place where it was possible to crawl in under the tent. He collected the rest of the gang and gave instructions about how it was to be done. He had the ideas and the executive power to put them into operation.
The country boys attending a high school were looked down upon by town urchins, and therefore banded together for mutual protection. There was no organization at first, only a common bond of sympathy. Any one of us was ready to come at a moment's notice to the assistance of any member who was in trouble.
When we organized a baseball team we chose the smallest fellow captain. He had moved from the city to the farm, had played ball since he was large enough to hold a bat, and was well versed in slang so that he could talk back to the town boys. We copied his ways and followed his advice. From him we learned the value of strategy. Best of all he instilled into us the idea of teamwork: "The part for the whole and the whole for the part."
I was on a ball team in a village in D. county. "Slabby" was our manager, by unanimous choice. He was a clean sportsman, strong and active, witty, ambitious, ingenious at inventing schemes to deceive opponents without infringing on the rules. "Doc." was our captain. His strong points were loyalty and good fellowship. Afterward I was away for three years attending the Normal. When I returned to the village as a teacher I was readmitted to the gang. I had gained greater efficiency in athletics, better address in meeting strangers, and more literary ability. I became manager in a few weeks.
As a result of our interest to perfect ourselves in baseball we gave so much time to practice at school that we seldom caused the teacher any trouble. At noontime we would play, and at recess when there was not time to start a game we would choose sides for the next game. Truthfulness and honesty were required of the members. Any one delinquent in this respect was looked down upon, and if persistently so would probably have been thrown out of the team.
One of the boys had exceptional ability in athletics. Whenever he pitched against my side and I was at the bat I was not vexed because I could not hit his balls but was spurred on to develop my ability in batting. I often watched his action in delivering the ball. When my opportunity came to pitch I would try to get the curves and speed he did by imitating his actions. When he came to bat I would watch his quick and accurate motions. All the players were trying to acquire his form just as I was. We all considered him as the leader. He was instrumental in making the rules to regulate the game. When discussions arose he usually rendered the decision.
The fact that the leader is a function of the situation, as well as a dominant exponent of it, gives rise to the wide divergence of interpretation as regards leadership or prestige. To some he seems a mere cork floating on the current of the common will; to others he seems the entire situation, and they would write history as the biography of great leaders. Both are partly wrong and partly right. He does indicate the set, which holds him in the same grasp as it holds the others. He expresses a situation. But he is not a mere cork. He contributes volitional definiteness and precipitating energy to the set to a greater extent than the other factors. He is important, therefore, in the effectiveness and organization of the common will. ... - American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 19, p. 25, J. E. Boodin, "The Existence of Social Minds."