An Autoethnographic Exploration of Social Identity and Leadership within a Motorcycle Club

Todd C. Wiggen


Autoethnography is a form of qualitative research in which the researcher utilizes self-reflection to examine their experiences in the context of a greater cultural and social environment (Ellis, 2004). This autoethnographic study provides an in-depth examination of the development and maintenance of social identities within a voluntary association – a military motorcycle club – and the subsequent impact on behavior and leadership within the organization during my then 13 year membership in the club. Members of the club merge multiple identities including that of military member or veteran, family member, and member of a motorcycle club, and develop a hierarchy based on the importance of each role with which they identify. Determining the hierarchy of roles (identities), the salience of a member’s identities, and how the member learned role expectations are necessary to understand the impact that identity has on participation and leadership behavior.

Photograph © 2019 Kate Wiggen.

Social identity theory contends that individual behavior within social groups is influenced by the meaning and expectations associated with the roles individuals are assigned (Smith & Woodward, 2012). The social group may be a formal or informal association in which members maintain similar social standing (Stets & Burke, 2000). When an individual is placed in a social group, the associated identity is triggered (Stets & Carter, 2011). Once identity is triggered and group members develop stronger identification (or salience) with that group, the more that group becomes a source of social norms and reality (Hirst, Van Dick & van Knippenberg, 2009). As a result, individuals will increase commitment to the organization and that commitment will positively influence the actions individuals may take in a given situation.

Members who maintain a strong identification with the organization, and their role within it, will tend to select leaders who seemingly possess characteristics who are prototypical of the group (Hogg, van Knippenberg & Rast, 2012b). Further, if a member develops a strong associated identity, and self-identifies as a prototypical member, they are more likely to seek leadership opportunities. Members who exude characteristics that are prototypical of group norms become better liked and more socially attractive to other members (Hogg, 2001). This allows the prototypical member to have greater influence upon other members. Prototypical members will have their ideas accepted more often than others will, which empowers that member to exercise influence (Hogg, 2001; Hogg, van Knippenberg & Rast, 2012b). Members view prototypical leaders as more representative of the organization and will garner the trust of the membership (Hirst, van Dick & van Knippenberg, 2009). However, if members fail to develop or maintain strong associated identities they are likely to reduce participation or leave the organization.


In 2002, I gathered a small group of active duty and reserve military members, who rode motorcycles, to form a military motorcycle club. The intent was to create an organization which resembled traditional motorcycle clubs focused on a membership of like-minded military men and women who did not demand that the club come before all other obligations. Therefore, the founding members agreed that duty and family obligations would come before responsibilities to the organization. Developing an organization from the ground up was complex and required not only the creation of an organizational structure, but also the development of an identity while managing the politics within the motorcycle club subculture. The analysis of 13 years of documents and artifacts, interviews with members, and self-reflection revealed the significant changes in reputation, attitude, traditions and leadership of the club from its origins to its current state.

Social identity forms through membership in specific groups or subcultures (Smith & Woodworth, 2012). However, research has demonstrated that a member’s behavior and level of involvement with that group is contingent on the commitment a member has to that social identity (Hogg, Van Knippenberg & Rast, 2012a). When an individual views membership, and the associated identity, positively and serves to reinforce how the individual wants to be regarded, the stronger the commitment to that identity becomes (Hogg, 2001; Hogg, 2005). Association with an organization creates a sense of belonging, develops an identity, and enhances self-esteem based on the positive image of the organization (Ashforth & Mael, 1989; Fombelle, Jarvis, Ward & Ostrom, 2011; Ruderman & Ernst, 2010). However, the opposite is just as true as a negative organizational image will create a situation in which the member may no longer consider their involvement as positive, thereby weakening the social identity role.

Although numerous studies are available which describe the impacts of social identification on individual and group behavior within an organization, fewer studies address the methods in which an organization seeks to develop and reinforce a common identity among its members. While Hogg, van Knippenberg and Rast (2012b) conclude that leaders effectively create and manage the group image while increasing salience and intensifying members’ identification with the organization, they fail to address how leaders may initially develop identity. There appears to be an inherent belief that individuals will associate with groups with which they already identify. Common interests and a desire to associate are not the only factors in developing an identity conducive to an individual organization. According to Ashforth and Mael (1989), several organizations may share similar values and characteristics. Therefore, organizational identification and commitment do not necessarily relate to the values and goals of the organization.


This qualitative autoethnographic study establishes how voluntary association develops and reinforces social identity, how that identity influences individual behavior within the organization, and the impact of low salience of organizational identity on organizational stagnation and attrition. As a founder, past national officer, and multiple-time chapter president, my experiences were directed at developing an organizational culture and creating identity for the membership. Utilizing interviews with members from nine different chapters facilitated a complete view of identity development.

An autoethnographic case study is an appropriate research design to examine a motorcycle club, or other voluntary associations, within the context of social identity theory. Autoethnography is a research method utilized to analyze and interpret the personal experiences of the researcher to better understand the culture being studied (Adams et al., 2015; Chang, 2008). Autoethnography is a form of ethnography that recognizes the importance of self in the study of culture (Chang, 2008). Utilizing an autoethnographic approach provided the ability to draw upon my own experiences as a member of a motorcycle club, and as a participant within the motorcycle club subculture, to develop deep insightful data. Autoethnography provides a retrospective observation in which the researcher interprets their past based on current views and beliefs (Hamdan, 2012). Rejecting the notion that ethnographers should maintain objectivity, autoethnographers use personal experiences and subjectivity in their research (Adams et al., 2015). According to Ellis (2004), in autoethnographic work, validity is interpretive and relies on the context and the experiences that participants bring to the research. Qualitative researchers argue that validity – as conceptualized by quantitative researchers – is not appropriate within qualitative projects and create their own definition of validity, adopting terms considered more appropriate such as quality or rigor (Golafshani, 2003).

The method of autoethnography allowed me, as a founder, past national and chapter president, and subject of the study, to apply ongoing self-reflection and reflexivity to describe and evaluate the beliefs, practices and experiences of the organization (Adams, Jones & Ellis, 2015). According to Chang (2008), autoethnography does not merely focus on self, but seeks to understand a culture or group through self. Therefore, in addition to analyzing personal experiences, the study examined current and former members of a military motorcycle club whose membership consists of those who are serving, or have served, in the United States military. The club maintains multiple chapters throughout the United States.

The co-participants include 15 members and two former members of the club. In addition, to ensure that current members had been acclimated to the organizational culture and had a chance to develop social identity within the organization, I selected participants from those who have been a member for at least one year. Combined with a six-month prospect/probationary period, the selected participants have at least 18 months as affiliates in the organization. By ensuring that each participant was a member of the organization for at least one year, they all had experienced club membership activities during riding and non-riding seasons, which reflected high and low periods of organizational activity. Additionally, all the co-participants are male. Although the club allows both male and female veterans, females are approximately five percent of the total membership and would best be served through a separate study.

As I combined interviews with textual data, participant observation and my own autoethnographic self-reflections, the sample size appeared to be sufficient for saturation (Marshall et al, 2013). Crouch and McKenzie (2006) state that a small number of interviews allow the researcher to facilitate a closer association with respondents and provide greater depth. Textual data include such things as field notes, journals, a review of historical documents, and personal communication from others. Based on the data collected, additional interviews were not necessary. To protect members’ identities, I labeled my interviewees in the study via a code consisting of a letter from the phonetic alphabet and a number (e.g. Alpha-1 or Bravo-2).

In addition to the planned semi-structured, interactive interviews, other interactions with the membership also served to provide data. In some cases, casual contact provides data that supports the research and is included. Such interactions include social exchanges during charity rides, club runs, parties and other club related events where formal interviews were neither desired nor appropriate.

Personal reflexivity, in-depth interviews with club members and former members, participant observation, and historical document review provided data on the development of members’ self-identification with the organization. In addition, the data indicated where that identification fits in the members’ role hierarchy and their related behavior within the organization. I conducted interviews in-person and via telephone. I recorded 16 of the interviews, but in one instance, an electronic medium was not available and I relied on detailed note taking. I analyzed the data by examining patterns of thoughts and behaviors of the participants and using identification of key events.

To identify key categories and themes, I gathered and analyzed documents and artifacts from 13 years of membership in the motorcycle club including e-mails, national and local by-laws, policy letters and meeting minutes. Each of these documents provided data indicating the development and reinforcement of social identity along with leadership strategies and skills, both positive and negative, used to lead the organization.

Developing Social Identity

A strong social identity role as a club member impacts the level of activity a member contributes to the club. The theory behind this study is that social identities positively influence the actions individuals take to benefit the organization. According to Stets and Carter (2011), an individual joining a social group activates an associated identity reflective of the group. As individuals develop stronger identification with the group, it becomes a source of social norms and reality (Hirst, Van Dick & van Knippenberg, 2009). An evaluation of the findings indicates that a high level of commitment to the social identity role of motorcycle club member positively impacts how much a member contributes to the club.

Tajfel and Turner (1979) devised three processes related to the development of social identity: social categorization, social identification and social comparison. Social categorization is a process in which individuals will determine with which group they self-identify. With the club, social categorization occurs when a potential member determines that the club may be a good fit and takes the step to hang around. Aside from the members who formed the organization, most members self-identified with the membership and ideals of the organization. A strong theme expressed by members was the desire to replicate the camaraderie and brotherhood they had found in their military service.

I saw the camaraderie between the people which I had when I was active duty. After I retired, I missed that belonging to a group. After seeing and hearing about what the club did, it sounded like home to me. I wanted to see if it felt like home to me and it has every day. (Bravo-1)

A second common theme expressed by the interviewed members was the desire to ride with “like-minded” individuals. (Charlie-2)

I hung around for almost a year before I committed to the club. I was a dyed in the wool independent. I kept saying ‘I don’t need no stinkin’ patches.’  It isn’t about the patches for me. I missed the military brotherhood – being with like-minded people. (Hotel-1)

A third idea concerns the expressed ideals of the club. For some members, the idea of a club who encouraged its members to place duty and family ahead of the club was a rarity. For those who balance numerous responsibilities, it seemed ideal.

I was unhappy with HOG and searched for a club that would match my ideals. The club has the same ideals [as me] on the social aspects and I appreciated the guidelines on which the club was both established and operates – Duty, Family, Club. (Golf-1)

Once a person determines which group they belong with, they will start to embrace the identity of that group and appropriate behaviors based on that identification (Tajfel & Turner, 1979). While people may identify with the club prior to joining, based on their observations and the expressed ideals of the organization, they will not fully integrate and secure that identity until they are able to earn their patch and become full members. Many new members come to the club with very little experience or exposure to the MC life. “I didn’t totally understand [what being a club member meant] until I went through the process to become a full patch member, then things started becoming more clear” (Charlie-2). While the prospective member is going through the process, they are not the only person learning. The membership is learning about the individual. The club has a vested interest in the probate learning about the club and buying in to its ideals and vision.

This is where you teach people how to be in this life. And it gives us a chance to see if people are going to give us a commitment – that these are not just patch collectors. It is what I consider a ‘get to know you’ time. I want to know what your beliefs are, I want to know that these people are going to make it long term. (Bravo-1)

Another integral part to identity theory is the idea of symbolic interactionism, which is the idea that the club’s culture will incorporate common symbols and common understandings (Manning & Smith, 2010). For the club, this includes standard cuts and the patches that adorn them. Every member wears a black leather vest as his or her cut. On the front right side, each member wears their road name, their chapter name, officer position (if applicable), and a POW/MIA patch. On the left front, every chapter wears an American flag patch and military pins, such as rank insignias, earned warfare pins, or ribbons. On the lower half of the front, members may wear, if earned, designated patches for riding 1000 miles in 24 hours, for riding 1500 miles in 36 hours and for riding 1500 miles in 24 hours. In addition, the member may wear up to four additional patches that are club or military related. These patches are limited in size, usually consisting of chapter specific patches or military unit patches. On the back of the cut, all members will wear their club pack patch. On the lower rear left, there are patches identifying years of membership. On the lower rear right, members will wear, if earned, a patch awarded to recognize outstanding service to the club. Above that patch, the member may wear a memorial patch for members who have passed away. As a result, regardless of what chapter members came from, they all look essentially the same.

Another aspect of symbolic interactionism is the development of common meanings for specific activities or items (Stryker, 2008). Individuals will mimic the actions of another and eventually ascribe meaning to the gesture that matches the intent of the originator. Through an accumulation of such gestures, identity will emerge (Mead, 1934; Vygotsky, 1978). The club employs common terms: “church,” the monthly business meeting; “choir practice,” the weekly social gathering; and “P,” short for president.

Stryker (2007) advanced the concept of symbolic interactionism to a framework he called structural symbolic interactionism. Structural symbolic interactionism pays more attention to social structural settings in which people develop themselves and engage in social exchanges (Stryker, 2007). The premise is that society shapes a person’s self and that self-identity influences social interactions (Stryker, 2008). In the context of the club, the identity of the probate and member is shaped within the organization and that impacts the interaction the member has with others in that social circle.

The final aspect of Tajfel and Turner’s (1979) processes is social comparison. Once members self-identify with the club, complete the probate process and assume the identity of the club, they will compare themselves to members of different groups. Positive comparison to other, similar groups creates a positive self-identity (Tajfel & Turner, 1979). In turn, a negative comparison to other, similar groups can result in a negative self-identity. An example is a chapter who altered their cut and patches without approval from the club as a whole. They observed other clubs and felt a negative self-identity, which impacted their ability to gain new members. As a result, they made a unilateral move that resulted in their expulsion from the club. The club offered them an opportunity to remain if they adhered to club standards, which they rejected. Based on comments from members of that chapter, the chapter held a negative self-view when compared to other clubs in their area. This negative self-identity contributed to their decision to reject the club’s offer.

Other members espouse the belief that the “club makes the patch; the patch doesn’t make the club” (common club expression). Further, members cite the camaraderie, the work done to support veterans’ causes, and the club’s ideals as positive attributes as a positive comparison to other clubs.

A common trait among members is the support they receive from their significant others and children. The creation of the club’s auxiliary group brings the family into the club activities. As a result, members develop a stronger identity.

She knows it’s me. My significant other knows and respects that I am a leader in the club. That I care a lot about it and have passion [for the club]. My significant other also participates with the club [as an auxiliary member]. (Echo-1)

The majority of members indicated a natural role hierarchy directly related to the ideals expressed by the club. Members tend to rank duty, or job, and family as their top priority with family as the top priority. Whether a member is still active duty military or not may explain some of the deviation in response. Most active duty military members ranked duty as the top role in their hierarchy and primary obligation, while those no longer actively serving rank family first. The club came third in most cases. Those members who are fully retired ranked club second behind family. One member described himself as “a motorcycle riding, conservative, gun advocating, military family man. I place my family first, work is second as this feeds the family and then the club. This will shift when I retire as work won’t be there” (Charlie-1).

The activity level of members reflects the strong salience they have with the role of a club member. Dependent on their current position within the club, whether a current officer or not, members often commit the equivalent of a part-time job to the organization. As a chapter officer, members often contribute three evenings a week and a weekend day to the club. Other members dedicate at least one evening a week and national officers will spend upwards of 20 hours a week on club business. During riding season, the hours spent will increase as there are more club-sponsored rides. Activity also varies based on work schedules and family obligations. Every member faces conflict between other obligations and those of the club.

Many members face conflicts between work, family and the club. Some have a lot of family needs and job responsibilities. This [the club] is a big sacrifice of weekend time and sometimes you miss out because we do a lot of things on the weekends. Sometimes we have family obligations that we are committed to, but you also have club things and you have to balance the two. You try and schedule far enough in advance for those. For choir practice, I was working swing and would have to call in sick occasionally so I could be there, so I didn’t miss out. (Foxtrot-2)

Over the course of a year, most members try to attend as many choir practices and rides as they can. While other things may supersede club activities, very few members miss everything. “In the MC world, you have to be active or you’re out” (Foxtrot-1). Most members now recognize that belonging to a MC requires commitment to the organization. “You have to earn your patch, there are rules of behavior and a strong commitment to the club” (Golf-4). Once they have been through a lengthy intake process and developed an identity as a club member, they strive to be an active participant as much as possible.

Finding Leaders

Members who develop a strong salience to their club identity shift their leadership preferences from those with typical leadership traits to those with traits more characteristic of the organization (DeRue & Ashford, 2010). According to Hogg (2001), members who display characteristics embodying club norms gain greater influence and garner greater support when seeking leadership roles. Group members grant leadership roles to those who are more characteristic of the organization (DeRue & Ashford, 2010). Club members support potential leaders who share the same view for the direction of the club (Golf-1; Charlie-2). Members also attribute prototypicality to the level of activity that a member may be engaged in, that is they choose to support people who demonstrate dedication to the club, beyond that of just being a member, and have a desire to lead (Echo-1).

The members interviewed said they want leaders who reflect the club’s values, share their vision, and are active. However, members also want that person to have some traditional leadership skills, such as communication, negotiation and conflict-management.

I look at the whole person concept. Their experience and how long they have been in the club. I filter them through my values. In the dealings I’ve had with them, have they managed conflict well? Are they able to resolve things without being drawn into them? Are they open to suggestions and do they have good communication skills? (Alpha-1)

None of the interviewed members actively sought a leadership role for their first office and very few actively sought additional roles. Rather, the majority stated that other members had recruited them. According to Charlie-2, “sometimes I lead, sometimes I’m nudged. I haven’t pursued any positions. I would say I am a reluctant leader. I found myself in a position where I was asked to lead and did so.” The theme of recruitment to leadership is prevalent throughout the interviewed members. Golf-2 was a four-year member who had no desire to fill a leadership role. However, when his chapter’s vice president left, the president asked him to step in.

It really isn’t a position I sought, but was asked to step into the [office]. The position is a good fit with my mentality. I don’t plan to seek other offices, but I will do whatever the club needs me to do. (Golf-2)

Another general response was from those who were charter members of their chapter. According to Echo-1, he “didn’t seek out positions, I was recruited. When starting a chapter, pretty much everyone is an officer.”  The club requires that each chapter fill five officer positions and, to start a chapter, there has to be five members. As a result, most charter members end up as an officer.

Finally, many of the members are not actively planning to run for positions in the future. Some “want to take a break and just be a patch holder” (Echo-1). Others have no plans to run, but will serve based on the needs of the club.

Finding Members

Early in the club’s existence, the membership intake process, or “probate program,” did nothing to develop a commitment to the social identity role of motorcycle club member. The club had no real concept of how important the idea of earning the patch is to building identity in an organization such a motorcycle club. Early probates did not, with few exceptions, stay with the club. Now, the importance of earning the patch is paramount (Delta-1).

Once the club developed astandardized intake process where every new person learned the same history, same club processes, the same set of standards, and the club emphasized its values and ideals, the probate process started aiding in the development of the social identity role of motorcycle club member. Earning the patch through the process integrates and secures that identity.

[The probate process] is a period when a potential member figures out if this is the lifestyle they want and if he is able to deal with it. They have [at least] six months of being a probate, six months to make mistakes and get his ass chewed. They will make their decision if they want this, if they want to make full patch. (Delta-1)

The probate also knows the club is evaluating him. The club has an interest in the probate learning about the club and buying in to its ideals and vision. If the probate does not “get it,” the members will vote him out. Making it through the process provides the new member a sense that he made it, that he was wanted and every member had to vote affirmatively for him to earn his patch. It is an important process because “you take pride in wearing the patch and feeling the brotherhood that comes with it” (Echo-1). Since the implementation of the modern probate process, the club has experienced fewer people leaving the club after they earn the patch. However, the process allows the club to “weed out those that don’t belong” before it even gets to a vote (Echo-1).

Impact of Leadership

From the founding of the organization, leadership behavior has had both positive and negative impacts on the development and maintenance of social identity among the club membership. Past successful leaders represented club values and ideals, built relationships through open communication, recognized those who contributed to the club’s success, and listened to the ideas of the membership. Further, successful leaders focused on the organizational greater good and developed methods to build esprit de corps and establish social identity. A positive vision and respectful demeanor to members, and potential members, served to grow the organization. The idea that leaders represent organizational values and ideals, build relationships through open communication, recognize those who contribute to organizational success, and listen to the ideas of the organization’s membership, are universal concepts that have applicability in similar organizations, corporate work environments, and in an educational setting.

According to Hirst, van Dick, and van Knippenberg (2009), high levels of identification with the group role are linked to a greater desire to exert oneself on behalf of that group. Through the creation of a vision of what the club could be, I was able to excite potential members and form an initial core group to form the club. Social categorization, as defined by Tajfel and Turner (1979), occurred as the original members self-identified with the organizational vision and determined that the proposed club aligned with their own ideals and values.

Several original members, thrust into leadership roles, also contributed to the development of social identity. An original member designed the club colors, which is a binding symbol within the organization. Symbols, such as the patch, have significant meaning within a group or subculture (Manning & Smith, 2010; Thompson & Hickey, 2002). Symbols in other types of organizations may include school mascots, fraternity pins, and military or athletic team uniforms. Other early members established group riding protocols, wrote the initial bylaws, developed the club motto, and created behavioral standards. Through the accumulation of standard practices, symbols and terminology, identity began to emerge (Mead, 1934; Vygotsky, 1978).

As the club grew, it expanded that vision to take the club in the direction of a MC and initiated the process to standardize behaviors and symbols across multiple chapters. In addition, the club’s leadership promoted the idea of improving communication among the chapters via the introduction of a biennial national run and quarterly presidents’ tele-conferences (PTC). These events provided a means in which national and chapter leaders could seek the opinions of others and develop consensus on issues affecting the club, a positive leadership behavior identified by several of the interviewed members (Foxtrot-2, Golf-1).

At the chapter level, leaders build commitment to the role of a motorcycle club member by demonstrating respect (Alpha-1; Echo-1; Golf-2), grooming members for leadership positions (Alpha-1; Delta-1; Golf-1; Golf-3; Echo-1; Foxtrot-3), and serving as positive role models (Alpha-1; Foxtrot-1; Golf-4; India-1;). The concept of mentoring future leaders is applicable to many organizations, from corporate to educational. Further, chapter leaders who kept the membership informed on issues and sought consensus ranked high on positive leadership behaviors that built a feeling of esprit de corps (Bravo-1; Foxtrot-2; Golf-1; Juliet-1). Finally, the maintenance of a family environment, with a strong emphasis on brotherhood, strengthened role commitment (Golf-2; Golf-4; Juliet-1).

Leader behavior has also contributed to a breakdown of social identity. Ego-driven decision-making, not listening to the opinions of others, poor communication, and displaying a lack of respect for others have driven members, and entire chapters, from the club. I was guilty of this behavior early in the club’s history and some aspects of my leadership style were not entirely conducive to developing identity. Some of my decisions were ego-involved, a behavior identified by interviewed members as a negative leadership trait (Foxtrot-1; Golf-2).

If people make decisions for their own ego, if it doesn’t make any sense or if it puts people at risk. I don’t agree with these decisions and I definitely don’t like them. This seems to happen often when people make a choice with their ego compared to the good of the membership or the good of the club. (Foxtrot-1)

When I personalized an issue, it hurt some members’ identity with the organization and they chose to leave. Unfortunately, this has happened in multiple circumstances with several different leaders.

More recently, leadership behaviors caused conflict and resentment between members and chapters. These behaviors included “not listening to the members, not taking input from the club members, not following by-laws or not following rules, but creating your own rules. Enforcing rules that don’t exist” (Golf-1).

In one instance, negative leadership behaviors resulted in an entire chapter leaving the club rather than dealing with those leadership behaviors. For them, the actions of a leader who refused to seek consensus and listen to the issues that the chapter faced overcame their identity as club members.

These incidences reflected the issues that members have with certain leadership behaviors. Condescension (Charlie-2), a lack of respect (Charlie-2; India-1; India-2), dictatorial behavior (Foxtrot-2; Foxtrot-3; Golf-1; Golf-2; Golf-3), lack of communication (Bravo-1; Charlie-1; Foxtrot-2; Golf-1; Juliet-1) and not honoring the history of the club (Alpha-1; India-1; India-2) are all issues mentioned by interviewees in reference to negative leadership behaviors. One last negative trait mentioned was the tendency for the formation of cliques, which permeated to some chapters (India-3).

While many members grew frustrated with the behaviors of certain leaders, most members had strong enough salience with their role as a club member that they did not depart the club. However, many chose to focus on their own chapters and the brotherhood within, rather than the issues they had with some leaders. Some members even opted to avoid club events in which they knew certain leaders would be present.

Evaluation of Findings

Although leaders maintain and strengthen role identification with an organization through their behaviors (Hogg, van knippenberg & Rast, 2012b), social identity theory does not address the actual development of social identity. In the creation of the military motorcycle club, the leaders of the organization had to create the structure of the group and build an identity that would satisfy potential members’ interpretation of self and how that person wanted to be viewed (Anderson-Facile, 2007; Hogg, 2001). This self-definition suggests that all individuals are similar to others within that group (Hogg, van Knippenberg, & Rast, 2012b). Within the 13-year history of the motorcycle club, leaders implemented practices that developed and strengthened social identity among its membership. However, some leaders also demonstrated behaviors that diminished role salience, causing members to depart the organization.

Organizations that have distinct characteristics, a clear organizational culture, specific membership requirements, and similar attitudes and behaviors are well suited to reduce self-uncertainty of social identity roles (Hogg & Adelman, 2013). Club leadership implemented a number of practices directly related to transformational leadership to aid the development and maintenance of social identity within the organization. Transformational leaders will create and articulate an organizational vision that appeals to the desires of the members (Bacha & Walker, 2013; Kouzes & Posner, 2012). Early leadership created a vision of a motorcycle club that consisted of military members and was family friendly. The tenets of “Duty, Family, Club” attracted military motorcycle enthusiasts who were looking for a brotherhood beyond the offerings of a typical RC, such as the local HOG chapter, but understood the importance of family and duty not often recognized in traditional 1% motorcycle clubs.

Early practices strengthened salience with the role of a motorcycle club member. These practices included the creation of an initiation ritual and oath of membership, the awarding of club road names to new members, and the introduction of club specific symbols and terminology. While these early steps aided in the development of a social identity and attracted members, the club had trouble retaining members. The formation of a national executive body, implementation of standard appearance, creation of common chapter practices, and the formalizing of an intake process strengthened role salience. The formalized intake process provided a way to mentor new members, while the formation of the national executive promoted collaboration among the chapters, both reflective of transformational leadership (Bacha & Walter, 2013; Grant & Hogg, 2012; Kouzes & Posner, 2012; Zagoršek, Dimovski & Škerlavaj, 2009).

The literature suggested that transformational leadership theory offers behaviors specifically designed to create community and common vision (Avolio et al., 2004; Bacha & Walker, 2013; Bass, 1985), imperative in the development of social identity. Further, leaders positively impact social identification within an organization through the manipulation of tradition, myths, rituals and other symbols to make an individual’s participation salient (Ashforth & Mael, 1989). The research reinforced the idea that the practices, or behaviors, of club leaders contributed to the development and reinforcement of social identity within the club. Within the club, leaders produced a vision for the organization, created initiation rituals, standardized cuts, and developed several traditions while also conveying a specific set of values based around the “Duty-Family-Club” mantra.

According to DeRue and Ashford (2010), self-identity dictates whether people claim leadership roles for themselves or grant that identity to someone else. High salience influences whom members select for leadership roles, choosing those who exhibit characteristics prototypical to the organization over those with typical leadership traits (DeRue & Ashford, 2010). Research indicates that members tend to prefer, or support, leaders who reflect the club’s values, shares their vision, and demonstrates dedication to the club through engagement in club activities. After prototypicality, members look for transformational leadership abilities such as good communications, the ability to manage conflict, serving as a role model, and maintaining a clear vision for the direction of the organization.

Unexpectedly, the results demonstrate that greater salience does not impact a member’s desire to seek a leadership position. Instead, greater salience impacted a member’s willingness to lead. None of the interviewed members actively sought a leadership role for their first office and very few actively sought additional roles. Rather, the majority stated that other members had recruited them and, based on the needs of the club, they stepped up to the position.

Members indicate that the modern probate/prospect process is superior to early iterations as it is a more robust and standardized intake process that emphasizes history, values, and standards, that aids in developing the social identity role of motorcycle club member. According to Mead (1934), mimicry is an early stage of identity development. Individuals mimic the actions of others and attach meaning to those actions. The probate process communicates the values of the organization and develops common meanings between those in the organization and those desiring to be part of the organization. Through the probate process, potential members learn to mimic the behaviors of the full patch members. The patch is a symbol that unifies the membership. According to Blumer (1969), meanings develop and adapt through a clarification process that forms through social interaction. The probate process serves as this clarification process. Further, society shapes a person’s self and that self-identity influences social interactions (Stryker, 2008). The probate process allows the club, the society that the individual desires to be part of, to shape a potential member. The learning of appropriate club behavior influences how the new member interacts within the club and beyond the club to other MCs. Earning the patch through the process integrates and secures that identity and creates a sense of pride in the acceptance into the organization. According to the members interviewed, the implementation of the modern process has reduced the number of persons departing the club after becoming a full member.

Based on the results of the study, I find that leadership behavior has both positive and negative influence on social identity. Implementation of several initiatives aid in the creation of distinct organizational characteristics, build an organizational culture, and establish criteria for initiation into the club. Each of these initiatives serve to strengthen social identity roles among club membership (Hogg & Adelman, 2013). Positive leadership behaviors identified through participant observation, reflexivity and participant interviews align with transformational leadership in that transformational leaders engage in actions that stimulate esprit de corps, such as modeling organizational values, placing the needs of the club in front of self, and fostering a sense of purpose (Grant & Hogg, 2012). Modeling organizational values and creating an organizational vision can serve to strengthen identity in a variety of settings, including education where social identity plays a role for both staff and students.

Negative leadership behaviors also appear to diminish salience through ego-driven decision-making, poor communication, a lack of respect, and a departure from club values. Comments from former members indicate that at least one entire chapter left the club due to leader behavior. Negative leadership behaviors cause individuals to experience uncertainty in their social identity role. When individuals experience uncertainty, they will tend to reduce participation and eventually disassociate from the organization (Hogg & Adelman, 2013). Several instances throughout the 13 years of the club’s history demonstrated how negative leadership behaviors affect members’ decision to leave the club.


The results demonstrated that there is a positive relationship between the practices associated with transformational leadership theory, organizational commitment and social identity (Dunn, Dastoor & Sims, 2012). Organizations with unique features, a distinct culture, specific membership criteria, and similarity of attitudes and behavior amongst members will support a member’s commitment to his role within the organization (Hogg & Adelman, 2013). Further, the results reinforced the social identity theory of leadership in that members will opt to select leaders who are prototypical to group norms (DeRue & Ashford, 2010; Hogg, 2001; Hogg, van Knippenberg & Rast, 2012b). Members of the Club tended to choose leaders that reflected the values and ideals of the motorcycle club. Movement toward a membership intake process that emphasized earning the club patch, thus becoming a full member, created positive social identity and reduced attrition. Leader behavior, identified as negative by club members, contributed to a breakdown of social identity. Ego-driven decision-making, not listening to the opinions of others, poor communication, and displaying a lack of respect for others contributed to the departure of members from the club.


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Dr. Todd Wiggen is an Assistant Professor with the Everett Dobson School of Business and Technology at Southwestern Oklahoma State University (SWOSU) and serves as the Coordinator of the Organizational Leadership program and as the Editor-in-Chief of the Administrative Issues Journal. His doctorate is in the field of Organizational Leadership. His particular research interests include leadership theory and practice, social identity theory, autoethnography, and the motorcycle subculture.

Prior to joining the faculty at SWOSU, Dr. Wiggen served as an officer with the United States Coast Guard, retiring in 2016. During his military career, Dr. Wiggen served as an intelligence officer, as an operations officer, as an administrative officer and as the chief of the Coast Guard’s Intelligence Training Branch. Dr. Wiggen retired as a Lieutenant Commander (O-4) and earned numerous awards, including the Joint Service Commendation Medal, both the Coast Guard and Navy Achievement Medals, the Military Outstanding Volunteer Service Medal, and the Global War on Terror Service Medal. He has also earned the distinction of Distinguished Toastmaster with Toastmasters International and the designation of Master Training Specialist from the Coast Guard. He is an avid motorcyclist, a founding member of a military motorcycle club and has earned his Saddle Sore 1000 and Bun Burner 1500 from the Iron Butt Association. He has owned a variety of motorcycles including multiple Harleys, a Victory, a Honda, a Yamaha and a custom chopper.

Dr. Wiggen is married to Kate Wiggen, has two sons, a grandson, four dogs and two motorcycles.

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