Evolving Theories of Leadership
To understand leadership as it is viewed and practiced today, it is important to recognize that the concept of leadership has changed over time. Leadership typically reflects the larger society, and theories have evolved as norms, attitudes, and understandings in the larger world have changed.
Historical Overview of Major Approaches
The various leadership theories can be categorized into six basic approaches, each of which is briefly described below. Many of these ideas are still applicable to leadership studies today and are discussed in various chapters of this text.
Great Man Theories This is the granddaddy of leadership concepts. The earliest studies of leadership adopted the belief that leaders (who were always thought of as male) were born with certain heroic leadership traits and natural abilities of power and influence. In organizations, social movements, religions, governments, and the military, leadership was conceptualized as a single “Great Man”
who put everything together and influenced others to follow along based on the strength of inherited traits, qualities, and abilities.
Trait Theories Studies of these larger-than-life leaders spurred research into the various traits that defined a leader. Beginning in the 1920s, researchers looked to see if leaders had particular traits or characteristics, such as intelligence or energy, that distinguished them from non-leaders and contributed to success. It was thought that if traits could be identified, leaders could be predicted, or perhaps even trained. Although research failed to produce a list of traits that would always guarantee leadership success, the interest in leadership characteristics has continued to the present day.
Behavior Theories The failure to identify a universal set of leadership traits led researchers in the early 1950s to begin looking at what a leader does, rather than who he or she is.52 One line of research focused on what leaders actually do on the job, such as various management activities, roles, and responsibilities. These studies were soon expanded to try to determine how effective leaders differ in their behavior from ineffective ones. Researchers looked at how a leader behaved toward followers and how this correlated with leadership effectiveness or ineffectiveness. Chapter 2 discusses trait and behavior theories.
Contingency Theories Researchers next began to consider the contextual and situational variables that influence what leadership behaviors will be effective. The idea behind contingency theories is that leaders can analyze their situation and tailor their behavior to improve leadership effectiveness. Major situational variables are the characteristics of followers, characteristics of the work environment
and follower tasks, and the external environment. Contingency theories, sometimes called situational theories, emphasize that leadership cannot be understood in a vacuum separate from various elements of the group or organizational situation.
Influence Theories These theories examine influence processes between leaders and followers. One primary topic of study is charismatic leadership which refers to leadership influence based not on position or formal authority but, rather, on the qualities and charismatic personality of the leader. Related areas of study are leadership vision (Chapter 13) and organizational culture. Leaders influence people to change by providing an inspiring vision of the future and shaping the culture and values needed to attain it. Several chapters of this text relate to the topic of influence because it is essential to understanding leadership.
Relational Theories Since the late 1970s, many ideas of leadership have focused on the relational aspect, that is, how leaders and followers interact and influence one another. Rather than being seen as something a leader does to a follower, leadership is viewed as a relational process that meaningfully engages all participants and enables each person to contribute to achieving the vision. Interpersonal
relationships are seen as the most important facet of leadership effectiveness.53 Two significant relational theories are transformational leadership and servant leadership Other important relational topics covered in various chapters of the text include the personal qualities that leaders need to build effective relationships, such as emotional intelligence, a leader’s mind, integrity and high moral standards, and personal courage. In addition, leaders build relationships through motivation and empowerment, leadership communication, team leadership, and embracing diversity.