Academic journal article International Journal of Psychological Studies

Student Leadership Perceptions in South Africa and the United States

Academic journal article International Journal of Psychological Studies

Student Leadership Perceptions in South Africa and the United States

Article excerpt


The present study examined high school and college students' perceptions of leadership traits necessary for outstanding leaders to possess in South Africa and the United States. Students (TV=124) indicated traits that both inhibited and facilitated outstanding leadership using modified Project GLOBE (House et al., 2004, Culture, leadership, and organizations: The GLOBE study of 62 societies, SAGE Publications) questionnaires. Results showed that: 1) Overall valence of trait dimensions remained constant across cultures and developmental stages; 2) South African students rated traits less strongly than American students overall, showing a less distinct definition of outstanding leadership; 3) College students' ratings of positive versus negative leadership traits were more differentiated than their high school counterparts' ratings; 4) The ratings of students in this study mirrored those of business people from Project GLOBE, although college students tended to have an even more distinct definition of what makes a good leader. Overall, our findings highlight the importance of considering cultural and developmental contexts when studying leadership traits.

Keywords: adolescents, leadership perceptions, outstanding leadership, Project GLOBE, South Africa, United States

1. Introduction

1.1 Leadership Challenges

According to former South African President F. W. de Klerk, one of the main dilemmas in leadership today is the ability to manage diversity effectively (personal communication, April 8, 2008); this is especially true in a large, multicultural country such as South Africa. Booysen and van Wyk (2007) contend that diversity management and communication skills are of fundamental importance for leaders as well as followers in South Africa's diverse workforce. A number of studies indicate that a lack of leadership contributes to many problems in South Africa, including violence (Seedat et al., 2009) and the HIV/AIDS epidemic (Chersich and Rees, 2008; Chopra et al., 2009; Coovadia et al., 2009; Wood & Webb, 2008). In contrast, successful leadership was one of the key factors in achievements such as improved responsiveness in hospitals (Puone et al., 2008) and resiliency in schools (Christie & Potterton, 1999; Davidoff & Lazarus, 1999; Davidoff et al., 1999).

Given the importance of leadership in South Africa to address social issues, we examined the attitudes of high school and college students, who are the country's future leaders and followers (Note 1). There has been a call to expand leadership development training not only to the businesses of South Africa, but also to schools and universities (Coates et al., 2007). South Africa is currently in a transitional phase; while past leadership research has focused on White males, equality programs mean that more women and people of color are now in leadership positions (Booysen & van Wyk, 2007). Madi (1995) adds that researchers should be aware that the average South African is 15 years old and Black, and it is their values and perceptions that will shape tomorrow's workforce. The present study therefore examined the perception of outstanding leadership traits among Black and South Asian students in South Africa.

In order to contextualize students' perceptions, we compared them to beliefs held by high school and college students in the United States. Given that there are multiple types and definitions of leadership (Yukl, 1981), the impact of culture on leadership development is not fully understood; it is not apparent whether traits important in defining leaders are universal or more culturally determined (Elenkov & Manev, 2005; House, Hanges et al., 2004; Zagorsek et al., 2004).

We chose to compare South African students to American students because of differences in the education systems in the two countries. Within the school context, the values of a society are fostered through an emphasis on developing the characteristics and abilities that are thought to enable children's future success as citizens and workers (Wentzel & Looney, 2007). …

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