Theories of Leadership

The scientific study of leadership began in the 20th century. Since becoming a recognized academic discipline, the study of leadership has inspired a number of important conceptual models. Theories and models of leadership have supported the concept of leadership. Each of these models or theories has their own merits and demerits. These theories have been developed through several stages of evolution ranging from great man approach to transformation theory of leadership. The earlier studies in the field focused on broad conceptualizations of leadership for instance the behavior, characteristics or traits of a leader.
Contemporary leadership focuses more on leadership as a process of influencing others within an organizational culture and the interactive relationship between leaders and followers (Chamorro-Premuzic, 2007, p. 144). However, despite the various approaches to leadership, all the theories in one form or other endorse the importance of motivation and influence as an essential part of leadership. Broadly speaking all the existing leadership theories can be divided into three general sets: trait-based theories, situational theories, and relationship or leader-follower exchange theories (Chemers, 1997, p.
19). A study of the evolution of the leadership theory is important when analyzing the traits of leadership in any current context. This is because the notions of leaderships are closely interlinked with the ideas of how various organizations function (Chamorro-Premuzic, 2007, p. 144). Hence, this section presents various theories of leadership, attempting to analyze them and the ideas and need behind the development of a particular theory. This would help in the effective analysis of the particular leadership traits in the particular field and business which is the focus of this research.

a. Great Man Theory – The theory was given by the 19th century philosopher Thomas Carlyle and is the earliest and most influential of all the theories. It is also known as charismatic theory of leadership. In this theory leaders are distinguishable from the followers based upon their personal abilities and traits. This theory was influenced by study by Galton in 1869 on the hereditary background of great men. Early studies in this field sought to identify these attributes of leadership and asserted that they were inherent and could not be taught.
The idea behind it was that the leaders were unique people who have qualities, which cannot be cultivated because they were present and carried in genes. The fact was strongly supported by the fact that leadership frequently emerged within the same prominent families (Murugan MS, 2004, p. 336). The theory however ignored the effect of followers and the impact of the situation. The focus of the theory was the personality of the leader and factors such that intellect, personality, height, class and age were investigated to find something, which might be a secret ingredient of leadership success.
Some researchers even came up with a set of precise features such as the leader must be a “white, male with 6’2” height, educated at Harvard, upper class, extrovert “etc (Tate, 1999, p. 36). The mix of such very different variables proved to be problematic because of the lack of hierarchical or logical order to corroborate with the findings in the corresponding literature. While Carlyle’s theory is popular even in present times, especially in political and military leadership where certain traits are considered to be necessary, it was replaced by other emerging theories in later half of 19th century
b. Trait theory – The Great Man theory was criticized by many theorists because it was considered to have no scientific basis and had no empirical studies to support it. The criticism of this theory paved the way to another theory or leadership which is also based on personality and acquired traits and is hence known as Trait theory. According to this theory leadership qualities and traits are not inborn but can be acquired by an individual through education, training and other forms of learning. Major advocates of this theory are Ordway Tead and Ervin Schell.
According to them there are ten qualities that are essential for effective leadership: physical and nervous energy, a sense of purpose and direction, enthusiasm, friendliness and affection, integrity, technical mastery, decisiveness, intelligence, teaching skills, and faith (Murugan MS, 2004, p. 337). They further say that a combination of these traits enables an individual to inspire others to accomplish a given task making them effective leaders. This theory was seriously investigated after the Second World War and continues to be popular even today.
It is often seen that those seeking to determine the personal traits for successful leadership subject the lives and management styles of well-known industrial leaders and executives to close scrutiny. However, scientific evidence has found extremely contradicting evidence regarding this. Traits denoting leadership in one scientific study are not found in others and the sheer number of supposed leadership traits given by the various researchers further complicates the situation.
Studies have however been successful in proving that possessing certain traits cannot always ensure successful leadership and might change in different situation (Tate, 1999, p. 36).
c. Behavioral Theory – The criticism of the use of particular traits to define leadership led to the development of behavioral theory of leadership. Here leadership was considered as a set of behaviors rather than a set of traits. These scholars argued that it was less important to possess a set of personal characteristics than it was to engage in leadership behaviors that would achieve desired results from followers.
Likert in 1961 gave a hypothesis of this theory that states, “if critical behaviors of leaders can be identified then a blue print of successful leadership can be created and duplicated“ (Bates, 2007, p. 6). The theory related the leader’s efficiency to his behaving and management style. This included the ability to produce psychological effects on subordinates in order to coordinate their efforts in achieving goals. The theory was in fact developed in several famous university of leadership in the business environment.
The behavior model movement was primarily due to management theorists and social psychologists in the late 1950s, who believed that they had to accept behaviorism as a scientific perspective to leadership. The theory also found supporters in educators, anthropologists, political scientists and sociologists, because of its scientific approach. The study of leadership is hence infused with a large amount of behaviorism that has been retained to this day (Rosf, 1991, p. 26). The subsections below give the works of some of the major pioneers in this field.
The works can however be divided in to either a task orientation approach or a work orientation approach (Bates, 2007, p. 6). The task orientation approach consisted of actions taken by the leader to accomplish a job such as assigning the task and organizing work, supervising and evaluation worker performance. The employee centered approach was advocated by Likert, Lewin, Argyris, Lippi and White, who suggested that leadership behavior which demonstrated a concern for employees and the use of participative techniques for decision making would result in improved performance.
According to this approach employee orientation consists of the actions that characterize the way in which a leader relates to and approaches a subordinate. Some other versions of the model promoted by Blake and Mouton were based on the idea that leadership should be both employee-oriented and directive (Montana, Chamov, 2000, p. 262). The different theories are explained below:
i. MacGregor’s X & Y theory of Management – The theory is essentially a theory of management. However, it actually describes the approaches that managers take in assuming leadership of their employees.
According to this theory there are two alternative ways how managers might view their workers based on the concepts of human nature: theory X and theory Y. The theory X managers believe that subordinates naturally abhor work and must be controlled closely to see that the tasks are completed. They use punishments and rewards as mechanisms of control. The theory Y managers believe that subordinates do not naturally dislike work and will actually enjoy work if properly motivated and rewarded.
According to them subordinates should be motivated to do their work rather than keeping them constrained under severe organizational and managerial controls. Such managers are more likely to provide expanded responsibilities and challenges to subordinates. This theory was recognizing that cognitive functions such as thoughts and beliefs might influence behavior (Myers, 2003, p. p. 36).
ii. Likert’s System Theory –According to this theory, managers can be categorized according to their trust in employees.
Rensis Likert identified four management styles, which he called the four systems. System 1 the exploitive-authoritative style, which is the way authoritarian groups work. This style is pretty similar to the theory X, while the system 4 is participative and represents the ultimate democratic style, and resembles theory Y in the section above. System 2 is benevolent-authoritative which is basically paternalistic, while system 3 is consultative and moves towards democracy and teamwork, both of which fit between systems 1 and 4. Likert considered system 4 as identical to an organization.
He used a measurement instrument for evaluating and organization’s leadership, which contained 51 items and variables of the concepts of leadership, motivation, communication, interaction, influence, decision-making, goal setting, and performance goals (Myers, 2003, p. p. 37). He and his associates at the Institute of Social Research at the University of Michigan found from their research that organizations high in system 4 also have high productivity.
System 4 has three key elements: supportive elements based on trust, group decision-making and group supervision, and high performance goals.
According to this approach while the individual leaders may use any one of these four systems particular organizations foster particular leadership styles (Swansburg, 2002, p. 398). iii. Blake and Mouton’s Managerial grid – The theory involves the use of a Managerial Grid for managers to identify their concerns for production, people or both production and people. The Managerial Grid is a two-dimensional leadership model. Dimensions of this model are tasks or production and the employee or people orientation of managers (Myers, 2003, p. p. 36).
These two dimensions of managerial thinking are depicted as follows: concern for production on the horizontal axis and concern for people on the vertical axis. They are shown in nine-point scales where 1 represents low concern, 5 represents an average amount of concern and 9 is high concern. These two concerns are interdependent and both are present to some extent in any management style (Swansburg, 2002, p. 397).. Study of the grid enables to sort out various possibilities and the attitudes, values, beliefs, and assumptions that underlie each approach.
According to Blake and Mouton the style is likely to achieve the highest quality of result over an extended period of time. The Grid serves as a road map towards more effective ways of working with and through others (Swansburg, 2002, p. 398). Much of the work on this theory grew out of two important research programs in the 1940s and 1950s at the Ohio state University and the University of Michigan. In the Ohio state university studies the researchers used questionnaires designed to provide information on the observed behaviors of leaders in a wide variety of organizations.
They found that leadership behavior fell into two main categories: initiating structure and consideration. The Michigan University studies used a similar approach to leadership but called the two categories as employee orientation and production orientation. The researchers found that effective leaders engaged in both task-orientation and relationship-oriented behavior (Montana, Chamov, 2000, p. 263). However, like the earlier two approaches this approach too sought to determine a single best leadership style that would work effectively in all situations.
They do not take contextual approaches into account and does not explain why correct leadership behavior fails in certain situations.
d. Participative Leadership – Participative leadership theory has been discussed in the earlier section indirectly. This type of leadership requires the leaders to involve their subordinates in making work-related decisions. Participative leadership involves a shift away from authoritarian and highly directive forms of leadership towards a broader range of individuals being allowed and encouraged to play a part in decision-making.
Social scientists have been at the forefront of the advocacy of participative management and lean heavily towards the MacGregor’s theory Y of leadership. William Ouchi advocates participative leadership and participative management. In his book Theory Z, the distinction between the people holding the management title and people not holding the title is blurred. According to Sergiovanni the burdens of leadership will be less if the leadership functions and roles are shared and it will also succeed in bonding the staff together.
Copland who says that participative leadership has the potential to ease the burden on principals and avoid undue expectations from the leader shares similar sentiments (Bryman, 1986, p. 88). Studies have definitively pointed to the fact the participative management has a postive effect on productivity of an organization. Some advantages of participative leadership are: a greater readiness to accept change, more peaceful manager and subordinate relations, increased employee commitment to organization, greater trust in management, greater ease in the management of subordinates, improved quality of management.
Decisions, improved upward communications, and improved teamwork. Potential disadvantages are: time-consuming process, possibilities of many conflicts etc (Bryman, 1986, p. 88). e. Contingency theories – Post 1970, the systematic ways of treatment of leadership became refined. Contingency theories grew out of impatience with the classical management approaches which seemed to prescribe universal solutions to all management problems irrespective of the different circumstances.
Finding personal dispositions and behaviors inadequate, scholars invoked context and leader-follower relationships to explain leadership effectiveness. Such models came to be referred to as contingency models or theories of leadership Contingency theories also argue that no single leadership style is effective in all circumstances, but that leadership styles are contingent on the organizational and situational context (Borkowski, 2005, p. 188). Contingency theories of leadership consider how situational factors alter the effectiveness of particular leader behaviors and styles of leadership.
The assumption is that no leadership traits, behaviors, or styles automatically constitute effective leadership. By their nature contingency theories are of the if-then type, for instance, if the situation is X, then the appropriate leadership behavior is Y. According to Yukl, the contingencies in question might involve such factors as the volatility of the environment, the size of the organization, the amount of the authority given to the leader, the complexity of the task etc. The main issue is the fit between a leader’s style and the situation the leader faces.
According to contingency theories, a leader must identify the critical characteristics of each situation, identify which leader behaviors are required, and then be flexible to exhibit these behaviors (Nelson, Quick, 2006, p. 394). This section gives the various contingency theories posted by different theorists.
i. Fiedler’s Least Preferred Co-worker (LPC) Theory – Fielder’s contingency theory of leadership is the earliest and the most well known contingency theory. Fielder explored the relationship between leader and subordinates, task structure and the leader’s position power.
This theory assumes that the leadership is task oriented or relationship oriented depending on how the leaders obtain their primary need gratification. According to the theory the effectiveness of both types of leadership depends on the favorableness of the situation. The basic premise is that the situation moderates the relation between leader personality traits and effectiveness. The leadership situation is characterized by leader-member relations, the degree of task structure and the leader’s position power.
Read about difference between behavioural theory and contingency theory of leadership
The theory classifies the favorableness of the leader’s situation according to the leader’s position power, the structure of the team’s task, and the quality of the leader-follower relationships (Hickman, 1998, p. 145). Fielder classifies leaders using the Least Preferred Coworker LPC scale. The LPC scale is a projective technique through which a leader is asked to think about the person with whom he or she can work least well. The leader is asked to describe this least preferred coworker using sixteen eight-point bipolar adjective sets.
Leaders who classify their least preferred coworker in positive terms are classified as high LPC or relationship oriented leaders. While the leaders who classify their least preferred coworkers in negative terms are classified as low LPS or task oriented leaders. The LPC score is a controversial element in contingency theory. The technique has been critiqued conceptually and methodologically because it is a projective technique with low measurement reliability (Nelson, Quick, 2006, p. 394). However, much of the evidence supports at least substantial parts of the theory.
ii. Cognitive Resource Theory – According to Fielder’s Cognitive Resource theory or CRT, experienced leaders perform better under stress, presumably because they are better prepared, organized and practiced at their craft. This is in contrast to more intelligent but less experienced leaders who may waste time trying to analyze the situations to come up with the perfect solution (Zaccaro, 2001 p. 121). The theory addresses the moderating influence of stress on the relative strengths of relationships of intelligence and experience with performance.
As can be seen from Zaccaro’s explanation, intelligence correlates better with performance than does experience in normal or low-stress situations. While under high-stress situations experience correlates better with performance. The theory has received support in many empirical investigations. The theory hence points towards the fact that the more task-relevant a leader’s competencies, intelligence and experience are the more directive the leader can be otherwise participative leadership works best. Fielder derives this analogy from his LPC score and the situation.
The theory has gained a lot of attention because it gives a perspective on leadership by exploring the circumstances under which intelligence or experience best predicts leadership effectiveness. The theory can hence be used for both leader selection and leadership training which is of paramount importance in recent times (Zaccaro, 2001 p. 122). iii. Strategic Contingencies Theory – Strategic contingencies theory is a structural theory of power which does not concern itself with the psychological attributes of individuals but rather with the sources of power that result from the structural characteristics of collective task-oriented behavior.
Hinnings provided an initial formulation of this theory concluding that coping with uncertainty does not in itself explain subunit power but such coping must be accompanied by workflow centrality and low substitutability. Hickson extended the theory suggesting that the relative power of agents specifically in subunits within organizations is a function of one’s expertise. The more experienced one is to the system, the more power one will have, and the more secure one’s status will be (Nelson, Quick, 2006, p.394).
The theory is also known as an implicit theory of leadership that promotes organizational learning by responding to different strategic contingencies in different activities of the organization. An important aspect of strategic contingencies theory is not that it indicates that one particular department or function is automatically more powerful than the other but that power depends on the contingencies present at any time.
The theory allows predicting the kind of changes in power balance that may take place in an organization which is facing some change in its context. The theory can be seen as a functional theory which states that those subunits and managers should gain powers, which are most critical to an organization at a particular time. This generally hold true in most organizational context. An interesting outcome of this theory is that the internal subunits can use opportunities to change the power balance in their favor (Butler, 1991, p. 208).

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