December 5, 2011

Theories of Leadership

The article describes various

leadership theories briefly.


In leadership theory, three studies are considered as seminal and important. In Iowa leadership studies, authoritarian, democratic and laissez-faire leadership concepts were proposed and investigated for their effect on aggressive and apathetic behavior on the part of followers. Laissez-faire approach resulted in more aggressive behavior, authoritarian style resulted in more apathetic behavior and democratic style was in between the two.

In Ohio leadership studies, a questionaire was used  on air force commanders and members of bomber crews as well as other leaders and the responses were subjected to factor analysis. Two factors emerged out of the analysis and were given the names of consideration and initiating structure.  They became more popular as task orientation and people orientation.

In Michigan studies, 12 pairs of high-producing and low-producing sections of an insurance company were studied. The conclusion was that high-producing sections were supervised in a general rather than close supervisory style and supervisors were people centered. In the case of low-producing section, the supervision was more close and task oriented.

The presently identified theories of leadership have their genesis in these studies in identifying the determinants of leadership and effective leadership.

Theories of leadership are provided in two categories: Traditional and modern.

Traditional theories are: 1. Trail theory 2. Exchange theory 3. Contingency theory 4. Path goal theory.
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Trait Theories of Leadership:





Trait theories identify traits or characteristics that help in leadership.



Leaders were more intelligent than the average of the group being led, but, interestingly, the leader is not the most intelligent of the group.



Emotion quotient (EQ) characteristics such as empathy, graciousness, optimism, and being able to read the nonverbal cues in social situation are associated with effective leaders. The leader should be able to assess himself as an able person (Self efficacy).

From trait theory, this approach moved towards skills theory.

From the trait theories, a list of skills categorized as technical, conceptual and human skills needed for effective management or leadership are specified. Yukl further identified that skills such as creativity, organizing ability, persuasiveness, diplomacy and tactfulness, knowledge of the task, and the ability to speak well contribute to leader success.

Competencies is another version of trait theory.

In the language of competencies, the following competencies were identified as having a relation to leadership effectiveness.



1. Drive, or the inner motivation to pursue goals (achievement motivation).

2. Leadership motivation - the use of socialized power to influence others to succeed.

3. Integrity, the idea includes truthfulness and the will to translate words into deeds.

4. Self-confidence exhibited through impression management

5. Leading others to feel confident.

6. Intelligence – ability to process information, analyze alternatives, and discover opportunities.

7. Knowledge of the business – ideas relevant to the business are initiated.

8. Emotional Intelligence: self-monitoring personality, ability to adapt to circumstances as needed.

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 Exchange and Group Theories of Leadership





According to this group of theories, a leader provides more benefits/rewards than burdens/costs for followers.

In a group, members make contributions at a cost to themselves and receive benefits at a cost to the group or other members. Interaction continues because members find the social exchange mutually rewarding.

(If every member of the group has to get more reward than his personal cost, the group must have synergy. The individual contributions result in bigger output due to the synergy)

In this group of theories, some analyzed the relationship between leader and the followers as one consisting of dyads, leader and each follower.  One idea that emerged from this thinking  is that leader behavior changes with subordinate behavior. When subordinates are not performing very well, leaders tend to emphasize the task and initiate structure to improve the performance. With subordinates who are doing a good job, consideration to people becomes the dominant behavior.

Some scholars in this group, emphasize the role of subordinates and this means subordinates have to be trained to be good followers so that group comes out successful. Followers have to support the leader and make leader look good.

Another aspect of leadership brought out by this line of theory is that subordinates who are committed and who expend a lot of effort for the unit are rewarded with more of the leader’s potential resources than those who do not display these behaviors. “Thus over a time the leader develops an “in-group” and an “out-group” of subordinates and these two groups are treated in different ways. The in-group reports fewer difficulties in their relationship with the leader and the out-group people have more complaints and grievances.

In this line of thought is also the idea, perceived similarity between the leader and the subordinate leads to higher quality leader-subordinate relationship.


In another dimension of this theory, it is stated that leaders try to change the self concept of the subordinate to improve the performance of the subordinate. At the same time subordinates also shape leader’s self concept or self schema through their responses.


Contingency Theory of Leadership





Fred Fiedler, presented a rigorous version of contingency theory wherein situation plays a part in leadership process.

Fiedler described the favorableness of a situation using three dimensions.

1. The leader-member relationship – cordial or opposing

2. The degree of task structure at hand – structured or unstructured

3. Leader’s position power – Formal authority of the leader

Fiedler found that when situation is very favorable or unfavorable, authoritarian leadership style delivered better results. When the situation is moderately favorable or unfavorable, human oriented or democratic leadership delivered better results. As in majority of the case, the situation will be in the middle ground, democratic leadership style is the more popular and appropriate style. 

Fiedler also came out with cognitive resource theory (CRT) of leadership. According to CRT

1. More intelligent leaders develop better plans, decisions, and action strategies than less intelligent leaders.

2. Intelligence contributes more strongly to group performance if the leader is directive and the group members are motivated and supportive of the leader.

3. Interpersonal stress distracts the leader from the task and the leader’s intelligence will contribute more highly if the leader has relatively stress-free relationship with superiors and subordinates.




Path-Goal Leadership Theory





According to this theory leaders have to understand the goals of the followers and prescribe a path that promises the fulfillment of goals to the followers.

The theory asserts that leader behavior will be acceptable to followers to the extent that the followers see such behavior as either an immediate source of satisfaction or as instrumental to future satisfaction.

Leadership behavior will be motivational and increase the effort of the followers to the extent that (1) it makes satisfaction of follower needs contingent on effective performance of the tasks planned by the leader and (2) it complements the environment of subordinates by providing the coaching, guidance, support, and rewards which are necessary for effective performance and which may otherwise be lacking in subordinates or in their environment.

Leaders can exhibit the following types of behavior as they feel appropriate to a situation. Same person can exhibit all the behaviors as appropriate.

1. Directive leadership: Leader decides the path and directs the followers.

2. Supportive leadership: Leaders friendly.

3. Participative leadership: Leader asks for and uses suggestions of followers.

4. Achievement oriented leadership: Leader sets challenging goals and shows confidence that followers will attain those challenging goals.

The activities of leader can be explained in the following steps.

1. Recognizing and arousing followers’ needs for outcomes over which the leader has some control.

2. Increasing the personal payoffs to followers for task accomplishment. This could mean providing payoffs which the follower desires.

3. Making the path to those payoffs (goals - *path-goal theory) easier to travel by coaching and direction.

4. Helping followers clarify their expectations.

5. Reducing frustrating barriers.

6. Increasing opportunities for personal satisfaction contingent on effective performance.

Path goal theory focuses on two aspects, goals of the subordinates and the path that is to be traveled for achieving those goals. Leader has to contribute to both of them or either of them at any point in time to be the leader.

Modern Theories



Charismatic Leadership Theories





Robert House suggested that charismatic leaders are characterized by self confidence and confidence in subordinates, high expectations for subordinates, ideological vision, and the use of personal examples. Followers identify with leader and his mission, exhibit extreme loyalty to and confidence in the leader, emulate leader’s values and behavior, and derive self esteem from their relationship with the leader. The leaders foster attitudinal, behavioral and emotional changes in their followers. Charismatic leaders produce performance in followers beyond expectations.

Transformational Leadership Theory




Transactional leadership involves an exchange relationship and can be interpreted as guiding followers to produce according to their values, beliefs.

Transformational leaders shift the values, beliefs and even needs of their followers. Transformation leaders help their organization and followers deliver an output that is far better or higher than than the historical trend based estimated output.




Transformational leaders have the following characteristics

1. They identify themselves as change agents.

2. They are courageous.

3. They believe in people.

4. They are value driven

5. They are life long learners.

6. They have the ability to deal with complexity, ambiguity and uncertainty.
7. They are visionaries (have grand plans).


Social Cognitive Approach to Leadership





The cognitive approach emphasizes understanding. A leader has to understand himself, his needs, and his behavior and also has to understand the environment that includes followers, their needs and behaviors. Leadership is coming out with plans and actions that are acceptable to followers and achieve the objectives of the group.

The steps in this approach can be described as:

1. The leader identifies the environmental variables that control his behavior.

2. The leader spares his time to work with the subordinate to discover the personalized set of environmental contingencies that regulate the subordinate’s behavior.

3. The leader and subordinate jointly attempt to discover ways in which they can manage their individual behavior to produce more mutually reinforcing and organizationally productive outcomes.
4. The leader enhances the efficacy of subordinates through setting up successful experiences (coaching), modeling, positive feedback, and persuasion, and psychological and physiological arousal. The increased efficacy leads to performance improvement. The success of the subordinates can in turn lead to leadership efficacy through the increased confidence in leader as well as appropriate subordinate behavior to reward his leader.


Video - Keith Blanchard on Leadership


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 Conclusions that Emerge from Synthesis of Theories



Leadership theories are not mutually exclusive. Each theory to an extent supplements or complements other theories. Leaders are better individuals in various traits compared to average followers. Leaders have to provide value to followers. Their effectiveness does not depend only on their traits and performance. The behavior of followers is also an important variable in determining the outcome of the organization. Hence group responsibility needs to be stressed to attain the outcomes or objectives of the group rather the role of leader alone. Leaders have to be coaches and they have to take interest in developing their subordinates' capabilities.

Reference and Source

Luthans, Fred, Organizational Behavior

Bibliography on Leadership



Leadership Theories - Bibliography


Related Articles



Leadership Styles, Roles, Activities, Skills and Development
Cognitive Resources Theory of Leadership
The concepts of Leadership and Management
Changing Leadership Style
Successful Leadership - Effective Leadership
Social and Emotional Intelligence for Effective Leadership
Leadership Themes

Authentic Leadership
Servant Leadership - An Explanation
Team Leadership
Leadership Roles - The Concept


Video - Lecture on Leadership
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 Originally published on Knol

http://knol.google.com/k/ theories-of-leadership
Knol Number 25
Updated 23.2.2012

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