Network brokerage and the perception of leadership

Ronald S. Burt*, Ray E. Reagans, Hagay C. Volvovsky

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


We renovate a classic experiment to define a research platform that provides data on network behavior and the causal effect of access to structural holes. Our hypothesis is that people are perceived to be leaders when they behave as network brokers, which is to say, when they coordinate information across structural holes. We focus on the perception of leadership to connect with the many field studies in which access to structural holes predicts success measures keyed to leadership. Our hypothesis is clearly supported. The broker-leader association we report is very similar in strength and form to broker-success associations reported in previous research. At the same time, it is also clear that people adapt to their randomly assigned network, re-shaping it to suit preferences that in some part emerge in team deliberations or outside the experiment. A modification to our hypothesis — at least for these small laboratory teams — is that monopoly brokerage is key to being cited as team leader. Leadership is ambiguous when multiple people are positioned to be brokers unless one person emerges by his or her network behavior as a monopoly broker. Our summary conclusion is that access to structural holes can be causal to the perception of leadership, a characteristic implicit in many success measures used to document the broker-success association.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)33-50
Number of pages18
JournalSocial Networks
StatePublished - May 2021
Externally publishedYes


  • Brokerage
  • Experiment
  • Small group
  • Structural holes
  • Team


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