December 1996 // Volume 34 // Number 6 // Research in Brief // 6RIB2

Previous Article Issue Contents Previous Article

Leadership in Nonformal Youth Groups: Does Style Affect Youth Outcomes?

Adult styles of leadership significantly affect member outcomes in 4-H clubs. While a number of previous studies have failed to find significant life skills differences between 4-H participants and non-members, the reason lies in failing to consider the style of adult leadership in research design. A year-long study of five clubs from three randomly selected counties in Montana used adult leadership style as a discriminant variable. Both qualitative and quantitative research methods were used to triangulate results and conclusions.

Kirk A. Astroth
Extension Specialist, 4-H Youth Development
Montana State University
Bozeman, Montana
Internet address:


Since publication of 4-H in Century III by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1976, 4-H has been challenged to demonstrate that it provides benefits to youth participating in the program. Demonstrating such results, however, has been difficult and reported advantages to participation are often more suggestive than definitive. Many non-formal youth programs share the same challenge--how to show that participation makes a substantial difference for its members.

Limitations of Previous Research

A number of studies have tried to determine if participation in out-of-school programs, like 4-H, is better for youth than not participating. Except for a handful of studies (Boyd, 1991; Heinsohn & Cantrell, 1986; Ladewig & Thomas, 1987; Sawer, 1987; Steele & Everson, 1978), researchers have been unable to demonstrate significant benefits to participation in such programs.

Why is this? Why do the results from numerous research studies seem to fly in the face of what we believe to be intuitively logical about the benefits of extra-curricular participation?

Many studies have failed to detect benefits for youth who participate in nonformal youth programs because they've ignored what we know about human development. Human development (often called human ecology) says we have to pay attention to the quality of the environment in which people live and participate. Therein lies the key.

If we simply take a random sample of young people who participate, say, in 4-H and try to find out if they're better off than youth who don't participate in 4-H (which is what most studies in the past have done), we've overlooked a critical element--leadership. We've forgotten that the kinds of 4-H groups in which each individual participates may be the most important element affecting the experiences of young people.

The failure to include leadership as a key variable is the flaw of many previous studies. Many studies failing to find significant differences between 4-H and non-4-H participants did not take into account the quality of the groups in which specific youth participate. Such studies have simply taken a random sample of youth who participate in non-formal youth groups, compared them to youth who do not participate in such groups, and have not found significant benefits to such participation (e.g. Fetsch, et al., 1993; Hanna, 1988; Miller 1991). It's little wonder: we've failed to consider the most important factors in our sampling strategy--leadership and group climate.

Research Methodology

Over the past year, a descriptive ethnographic study of 4-H clubs using both qualitative and quantitative methods was conducted in Montana to examine the impact of extreme styles of leadership on member outcomes. All counties in the state were classified by population size into one of three categories: urban (a density of >10 persons per square mile), rural and frontier (<2 people per square mile). One county in each category was randomly selected for further study.

Within each of the three counties, all 4-H club organizational leaders were administered an instrument designed by Edward Deci at the University of Rochester that measures an adult's orientation as either highly controlling or highly supportive of autonomy. The instrument provides "an internally consistent, temporally stable, and externally valid" measure of an adult's basic style of working with young people (Deci, Schwartz, Sheinman and Ryan, 1981, p. 649). Reliability coefficients for each of the four subscales of the instrument range from .77 to .82. The test-retest reliability of the instrument is .70.

A total of 41 of the 49 club leaders returned the Deci instrument for an overall return rate of 84%. Each survey was analyzed using a self-designed computer program based on analysis procedures provided by Deci. Scores can range from -18 (high control orientation) to +18 (high autonomy orientation).

Based on the scores of these surveys, a total of five clubs were purposely selected for the research project. Three clubs led by adults who scored toward the high autonomy end of the Deci scale, and two clubs led by adults who scored toward the high control end of the scale. Originally, a third control-oriented club was to be included in the design, but conflicts with meeting dates made this impossible.

The five clubs were intensively studied over a 12 month period beginning in January 1995 and ending in December 1995. This time period was selected to ensure that each club was observed for a significant period of time as well as through each club's annual reorganization in the fall. In total, more than 160 hours were spent in non-participant observation of clubs in action--at monthly meetings, at community service activities, at project meetings, at county fairs, at fundraising events, and at play. Extensive field notes and observations were recorded during and after each event.

In addition, 53 people were interviewed--club leaders, youth members, parents, county agents and others. More than 45 hours of interviews were taped and then transcribed, coded, and analyzed. Official club documents, record books, and history books were also studied. Finally, photographs were taken to record interactions between youth and adults, signage, and behaviors. In addition, sketches were made of the physical set-up and physical layout of each club meeting.

At the end of the study, all club members completed two quantitative instruments. All youth members completed the Coopersmith Self-Esteem Scale (Coopersmith, 1981) and all youth members age 12 years and older completed an instrument adpated from David Olson's FACES III instrument which measures group cohesion, adaptability, and satisfaction (Olson, 1986; Olson, Portner & Lavee, 1985; Olson, Sprenkle & Russell, 1979). For the purposes of this study, this modified instrument was called CASES IV.

All these multiple data sources were used to triangulate observations and discern emergent patterns and trends which would suggest the research conclusions.

The Important Role of Leadership

Is one style of leadership better than another? Does leadership style affect the kinds of skills and abilities youth develop in 4-H clubs? The answer to both questions is yes, and often to a significant degree. While the results of this study are too numerous to recount in this one article, some of the significant findings related to adult leadership in 4-H clubs are discussed.

Leadership Preferences

Consistently, adult 4-H club leaders expressed a preference for an autonomy-oriented approach even though they found it hard to "walk the talk." Leaders who ranked higher in autonomy behavior were more often observed practicing such a style; more control-oriented leaders more often lapsed back into controlling behaviors that tended to direct and dictate to youth despite their expressed preferences to the contrary.

4-H club members of all ages felt that an autonomy-oriented approach was the ideal situation for the club. One youth in an autonomy-oriented club expressed it well:

    I think the ideal leader would be somebody who sits back and has everything we need to talk about in a meeting, in order, and knows what's going on at all times. And at the beginning of a meeting, just throw out a subject or topic that we need to talk about for a while, just say, "Well, we need to talk about this," and just sit back and let us talk about it and come to a conclusion.

In contrast, listen to the observations of this youth from a control-oriented club:

    All the adults make too many decisions about what we can or can't do. Adults should consult with kids before deciding rules and making decisions. Adults should be in their own room sometimes. Adults shouldn't be able to speak sometimes at club meetings.

Importance of Order

Still, there is a balance that effective groups achieve between too much control and too much autonomy. Effective youth groups are those that are firm yet flexible. Members of both types of clubs and leaders talked about the necessity for some order in the club so that things didn't devolve into chaos. One leader, for example, gave this description of a really good club meeting:

    A really good meeting is one where the business gets done, but anyone who wanted to say something had that chance. There can be fun, giggling, joking, but the meeting gets done. It's not so strict by Robert's Rules that no one has fun, but not so loose that it's chaos.

Oddly enough, at certain stressful times that they seemed unable to manage, control-oriented leaders were observed periodically giving up and allowing the club to erupt in chaos. As if to prove that the youth members were unable to conduct their own affairs, control-oriented leaders let chaos reign for a time and then re-established control through the use of yelling, threats, or even physical sanctions (pinching, grabbing a youth, etc.). Not surprisingly, maintaining order and minimizing confusion was a theme which emerged in interviews with members of the control-oriented clubs as this 12-year old noted:

    Poor leaders are those that sit back and let others run the meeting when they're not running it in order, and people are screaming and yelling. Personally, I don't think our club is that organized, and we need to get it together and be more organized.


Using the CASES IV instrument, a measure of satisfaction using the ideal-perceived discrepancy score with the club environment was obtained for each club. Several ANOVA tests revealed that there were significant differences between club member's satisfaction scores between club leadership types. Post- hoc analysis using Duncan's test reveal that club members' satisfaction in the most control-oriented club differed significantly from the satisfaction scores of members in the three autonomy-oriented clubs (F = 2.76; df = 4/54; p = .0373). Club members in the more control-oriented club were highly dissatisfied with their 4-H club experience. There were no significant differences based on age or gender.

These quantitative results were supported by the qualitative data. Members of the more control-oriented club consistently talked about how disorganized and chaotic their club was. Members of this club rarely mentioned fun as a reason for belonging to 4- H and focused more on the side benefits to participating in 4-H, such as being able to go to the fair and attend camp.


Previous studies (Harter, 1983; Lepper & Greene, 1975; Prawat & Nickerson, 1985; Ryan, 1982; Ryan & Grolnick, 1986) have indicated that leadership style affects students' self-esteem and self-confidence. However, this research found no such relationship. Several one-way ANOVA tests of the Coopersmith results found that there were no significant differences between member's self-esteem scores based on club leadership type. In addition, there were no significant differences based on age or gender.

Qualitative interviews and other data substantiated this finding. Only a few key informants mentioned the impact 4-H had on their self-concept or self-esteem. One 13-year old member responded: I'm probably the same, but I believe in myself a little more.

This study found that self-esteem is neither enhanced nor harmed by the kind of club leadership style practiced by adults. In part, this result is probably due to the fact that self-esteem depends on a number of variables. As suggested in the self-esteem research, overall self-esteem may be more global in nature, and it is difficult to identify specific contributors or detractors to an individual's assessment of self-worth (Coopersmith, 1967; Harter, 1983; Wylie, 1961). In reality, self-esteem may be relatively resilient to various leadership orientations. As Erickson (1983) put it, non-formal youth groups' touch may be too light to make much impact on self-esteem.


4-H is quite effective at developing leadership skills in 4- H members. This pattern consistently emerged in the data, and nearly all those interviewed spoke about the way that 4-H helped them learn leadership skills.

In autonomy-oriented clubs, members held both the formal leadership positions and also exercised leadership authority informally, although some members still resented the smallest intrusion of adults into "their" program. In these clubs, youth were really in charge of the meetings and were not simply serving as figure heads or pawns.

In clubs led by more control-oriented leaders, members simply held the formal positions of leadership but had less actual authority. In many instances, their authority was usurped by leaders and parents. In these clubs, officers felt little investment in the club's meetings and consistently turned to the adult leader for direction and leadership.

Life Skill Development

In addition to developing leadership skills, 4-H clubs can be effective at helping youth develop critical life skills such as decision-making, responsibility, interpersonal skills, an ethic of service, and how to get along with others. Yet again, youth in autonomy-oriented clubs developed these kinds of skills to a much greater extent than youth in control-oriented clubs.

Members in autonomy-oriented clubs spoke more often about learning speaking skills, responsibility, and social skills than members of the other two clubs. Autonomy-oriented leaders were concerned with youth development outcomes--developing positive self-concept and self-worth, teaching decision-making skills, developing communications skills and fostering a sense of personal pride in accomplishments. Such leaders were unconcerned about noise or playfulness if they knew that youth were learning and having fun in the process.

In contrast, control-oriented leaders spoke much less often about youth development outcomes and instead tended to be more concerned about procedural rules and organizational needs. Control-oriented leaders, when asked about their goals for youth, focused on project completion, record keeping, and keeping peace in the club.

Control-oriented leaders were more task-oriented. These leaders rarely spoke of enhancing interpersonal skills or of fostering self-directed learning. These outcomes were viewed as offshoots of getting things done right. Control-oriented leaders were bothered by noise and play, and they saw these as counter- productive to reaching club goals. Noise was equated with lack of focus and direction.

Practical Skill Development

In addition to developing life skills, 4-H places nearly equal emphasis on developing practical, technical skills. Members often cited 4-H's opportunities to work in hands-on ways with a variety of materials and tools that they could use throughout their lives. One youngster mentioned having developed the knowledge and abilities in 4-H to become a professional rabbit breeder. Another member learned how to train dogs.

However, as in the case of self-esteem, leadership style did not seem to affect the extent to which youth developed these non- cognitive skills. In fact, members of control-oriented clubs mentioned this kind of skill development just as often as youth in autonomy-oriented clubs. Evidently, despite a controlling leader, youth members are able to seek out and develop subject matter knowledge they can apply.

Still, it is important to remember that these kinds of skills were the primary skills youth in control-oriented clubs developed. Youth in autonomy-oriented clubs developed both life skills and practical skills.


In 4-H, as in other nonformal youth programs, youth have the unique opportunity to exert influence over the success or failure of various parts of the program. Non-formal youth programs like 4 -H are rare settings, then, "where what a twelve- or thirteen- year old does really matters" (Kleinfeld & Shinkwin, 1984, p. 69). In these programs, what youth do can influence the success or failure of certain activities--a situation that is rare for youth in schools. In schools, only a very few youth can hold any positions of leadership, and most of the important decisions are made by adults without consulting youth. This situation is particularly true in middle schools.

4-H is able to teach the skills that schools cannot precisely because of the voluntary and low-risk nature of non- formal programs. Autonomy-oriented leaders can foster both life skills and practical, noncognitive skills, and they do so better than control-oriented leaders. Autonomy-oriented leaders bring certain sets of skills and interests to youth groups that maximize youth potential for healthy growth and development. Control-oriented leaders impede, and in some cases detour, this development. Members of control-oriented clubs are significantly less satisfied with their 4-H experience and are less likely to characterize 4-H as enjoyable.

In the end, effective youth programs help youth develop skills through actual practice not through control or domination. As Kohn (1994) observed, youth "acquire a sense of significance from doing significant things, from being active participants in their own education" (p. 282). 4-H will be challenged to help leaders practice more autonomy-oriented behaviors and reduce their control-oriented behaviors if we hope to "make the best better."


Boyd, B. L. (1991). Analysis of 4-H participation and leadership life skill development in Texas 4-H club members. Unpublished doctoral dissertation. College Station: Texas A & M University.

Coopersmith, S. (1967). The antecedents of self-esteem. San Francisco: W.H. Freeman & Co.

Coopersmith, S. (1981). Self-esteem inventories. Palo Alto, CA: Consulting Psychologists Press, Inc.

Deci, E.L., Schwartz, A.J., Sheinman, L. & Ryan, R.M. (1981). An instrument to assess adults' orientations toward control versus autonomy with children: Reflections on instrinsic motivation and perceived competence. Journal of Educational Psychology, 73, 642-650.

Erickson, J.B. (1983). Directory of American youth organizations. Boys Town, NE: Father's Flanagan's Boy's Home, Communications & Public Service.

Fetsch, R.J., Carey, J., Cramer, S., Arnhold, L., Swartz, A., Peterson, W. L., Elliot, B., Hoffman, G., Cooper, W., Salzer, R., Earley, L., Crumpton, E., LaBarr, C., & Gully, K. (1993, March). A 4-H, family life, and school collaboration to determine program effectiveness--preliminary results. Paper presented at the Western Extension Specialists Conference, Denver, CO.

Hanna, G. S. (1988). Kansas 4-H impact study: 1983-1987. Unpublished report by author. Manhattan, KS: Kansas State University, Department of Education.

Harter, S. (1983). Developmental perspectives on the self- system. In E.M. Hetherington (Ed.), Handbook of child psychology: Volume 4. Socialization, personality, and social development (4th ed., pp. 275-386). New York: Wiley.

Heinsohn, A.L. & Cantrell, M.J. (1986). Pennsylvania 4-H impact study: An evaluation of teen's life skill development. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University.

Kleinfeld, J. & Shinkwin, A. (1984). Making good boys better: Nonformal education in Boy Scouts. Fairbanks, AK: Institute of Social, Economic and Government Research.

Kohn, A. (1994). The truth about self-esteem. Phi Delta Kappan, 76, 272-283.

Ladewig, H. & Thomas, J. (1987). Does 4-H make a difference? College Station, TX: Texas A & M University System.

Lepper, M.R. & Greene, D. (1975). Turning play into work: Effects of adult surveillance and extrinsic awards on children's intrinsic motivation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 31, 479-86.

Miller, J. P. (1991). Four-H and Non-4-H Participants' Development of competency, coping, and contributory skills. Unpublished doctoral dissertation. The Pennsylvania State University.

Olson, D.H. (1986). Circumplex model VII: Validation studies and FACES III. Family Process, 25, 337-351.

Olson, D.H., Portner, J. & Lavee, Y. (1985). FACES III. St. Paul, MN: University of Minnesota.

Olson, D.H., Sprenkle, D.H., & Russell, C.S. (1979). Circumplex model of marital and family systems: I. Cohesion and adaptability dimensions, family stypes, and clinical applications. Family Process, 18, 3-28.

Prawat, R. & Nickerson, J. (1985). Relationship between teacher thought and action and student affective outcomes. Elementary School Journal, 85, 529-540.

Ryan, R.M. (1982). Control and information in the intrapersonal sphere: An extension of cognitive evaluation theory. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 43, 450- 461.

Ryan, Richard M. & Grolnick, W. S. (1986). Origins and pawns in the classroom: Self-report and projective assessment of individual differences in children's perceptions. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 50, 550-58.

Sawer, B.J. (1987). What 4-H members learn in animal science projects. Corvallis, OR: Oregon State University, Department of 4-H and Youth Development.

Steele, S. M. & Everson, N. (1978). What youth gain from 4- H animal projects. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin-- Extension Service.

Wylie, F. (1961). The self-concept. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska.