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Leader of the gang

By Glyn Davis - posted Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Parliamentary politics requires a level of guile and agility rarely demanded elsewhere. Political leaders know their influence is provisional. High office can be withdrawn without explanation. Such regular violence against leaders suggests that when the times change, the leader must adapt quickly or leave. In this elemental world only continued success buys more time.

Political parties have interesting similarities to street gangs, those groups of disenfranchised youths who band together for mutual support and profit.

One of the great works of street gang scholarship is The Gang, written by a young sociologist, Frederic Milton Thrasher, and published in 1927 by the University of Chicago Press.


Thrasher discovered that gang members struggled to articulate reasons for their choice of leader – they were 'quite naïve about the whole matter; they do not stop to puzzle out why they follow one certain boy rather than another'. They understood, but struggled to articulate, a shared intuition about why a particular boy had the right skills – for the moment – to be leader.

Thrasher found some continuity across gangs. The leader 'goes where others fear to go. He is brave in the face of danger. He goes first – ahead of the gang – and the rest feel secure in his presence. Along with this quality usually goes the ability to think clearly in the excitement of a crisis.'

Yet it was rarely clear in advance who in the gang possessed this combination of skills. The same gang might choose muscles as leader for a time, but brains as his successor. And gangs select leaders, not the other way around. The leader 'grows out of the gang', providing the qualities it requires at a particular time.

Thrasher discovered that leadership attributes are not transferable. 'The type of boy who can lead one gang may be a failure or have a distinctly subordinate role in another.'

Where Frederick Thrasher led, others followed. From the late 1930s the junior Harvard academic William Foote Whyte lived in the slums of North End in Boston, studying street gangs among the largely poor Italian immigrant community. His Street Corner Society, published in 1943, confirmed the essence of Thrasher's observations about gang leadership.

Whyte also noted that the leader holds office only with support of gang members. Indeed, the leader must barter constantly to retain his pre-eminence. It costs to be leader. The head of a street gang 'always gave out more money and favors than he received'. Whyte confirmed that gang leaders cannot rule simply by domination of the strongest. There is a more subtle relationship between leaders and led. Loyalty is always provisional. Groups held together by one charismatic individual are susceptible to the charms of another.


Often the leader must work through lieutenants, and so become vulnerable to conflict. Whyte observed that gang leadership changes 'not through an uprising of the bottom men but by a shift in relations between men at the top of the structure'. When, as often happens, a gang breaks into two, the explanation is to be found in conflict between the leader and a former lieutenant.


Though an analogy is only ever approximate, the gang literature can be useful when thinking about political leadership. In political parties, as in gangs, much depends on the consent of the governed. Leaders must be right for the times, and embody the values of the party. To be successful they must win the support of a small, individually ambitious but collectively nervous and risk-averse group known as the parliamentary party. This is not the same as the endless personality rivalries recorded by political journalists, but something more intangible – an understanding among those in the party room. It is a feeling impossible to gauge from outside, and perhaps hard to describe for many within: just a feeling about what sort of leader the times require.

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This article was first published in The Drum on November 28, 2011.

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About the Author

Professor Glyn Davis is Vice-Chancellor of Melbourne University and Foundation Chair of the Australia and New Zealand School of Government. Before taking up his present role, Professor Davis was Director-General of the Queensland Department of Premier and Cabinet.

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Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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