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Leadership Theories Essay

One of the earliest approaches for studying leadership was the trait approach. This approach emphasizes attributes of leaders such as personality, motives, values, and skills. Underlying this approach was the assumption that some people are natural leaders, endowed with certain traits not possessed by other people. Early leadership theories attributed managerial success to extraordinary abilities such as tireless energy, penetrating intuition, uncanny foresight, and irresistible persuasive powers. Hundreds of trait studies conducted during the 1930s and 1940s sought to discover these elusive qualities, but this massive research effort failed to find any traits that would guarantee leadership success.

One reason for the failure was a lack of attention to intervening variables in the causal chain that could explain how traits could affect a delayed outcome such as group performance or leader advancement. The predominant research method was to look for a significant correlation between individual leader attributes and a criterion of leader success, without examining any explanatory processes. However, as evidence from better designed research slowly accumulated over the years, researchers made progress in discovering how leader attributes are related to leadership behavior and effectiveness. A more recent trait approach examines leader values that are relevant for explaining ethical leadership.

Behavior Approach

The behavior approach began in the early 1950s after many researchers became discouraged with the trait approach and began to pay closer attention to what managers actually do on the job. The behavior research falls into two general subcategories. One line of research examines how managers spend their time and the typical pattern of activities, responsibilities, and functions for managerial jobs. Some of the research also investigates how managers cope with demands, constraints, and role conflicts in their jobs. Most research on managerial work uses descriptive methods of data collection such as direct observation, diaries, job description questionnaires, and anecdotes obtained from interviews. Although this research was not designed to directly assess effective leadership, it provides useful insights into this subject.

Leadership effectiveness depends in part on how well a manager resolves role conflicts, copes with demands, recognizes opportunities, and overcomes constraints. Another subcategory of the behavior approach focuses on identifying effective leadership behavior. The preferred research method involves a survey field study with a behavior description questionnaire. In the past 50 years, hundreds of survey studies examined the correlation between leadership behavior and various indicators of leadership effectiveness. A much smaller number of studies used laboratory experiments, field experiments, or critical incidents to determine how effective leaders differ in behavior from ineffective leaders.

Power-Influence Approach

Power-influence research examines influence processes between leaders and other people. Like most research on traits and behavior, some of the power-influence research takes a leader-centered perspective with an implicit assumption that causality is unidirectional (leaders act and followers react). This research seeks to explain leadership effectiveness in terms of the amount and type of power possessed by a leader and how power is exercised. Power is viewed as important not only for influencing subordinates, but also for influencing peers, superiors, and people outside the organization, such as clients and suppliers.

The favorite methodology has been the use of survey questionnaires to relate leader power to various measures of leadership effectiveness. Other power-influence research used questionnaires and descriptive incidents to determine how leaders influence the attitudes and behavior of followers. The study of influence tactics can be viewed as a bridge linking the power-influence approach and the behavior approach. The use of different influence tactics is compared in terms of their relative effectiveness for getting people to do what the leader wants.

Participative leadership is concerned with power sharing and empowerment of followers, but it is firmly rooted in the tradition of behavior research as well. Many studies used questionnaires to correlate subordinate perceptions of participative leadership with criteria of leadership effectiveness such as subordinate satisfaction, effort, and performance. Laboratory and field experiments compared autocratic and participative leadership styles. Finally, descriptive case studies of effective managers examined how they use consultation and delegation to give people a sense of ownership for decisions.

Situational Approach

The situational approach emphasizes the importance of contextual factors that influence leadership processes. Major situational variables include the characteristics of followers, the nature of the work performed by the leader’s unit, the type of organization, and the nature of the external environment. This approach has two major subcategories. One line of research is an attempt to discover the extent to which leadership processes are the same or unique across different types of organizations, levels of management, and cultures. The primary research method is a comparative study of two or more situations.

The dependent variables may be managerial perceptions and attitudes, managerial activities and behavior patterns, or influence processes. The other subcategory of situational research attempts to identify aspects of the situation that “moderate” the relationship of leader attributes (e.g., traits, skills, behavior) to leadership effectiveness. The assumption is that different attributes will be effective in different situations, and that the same attribute is not optimal in all situations. Theories describing this relationship are sometimes called “contingency theories” of leadership. A more extreme form of situational theory (“leadership substitutes”) identifies the conditions that can make hierarchical leadership redundant and unnecessary (Chapter 8).

Integrative Approach

An integrative approach involves more than one type of leadership variable. In recent years it has become more common for researchers to include two or more types of leadership variables in the same study, but it is still rare to find a theory that includes all of them (i.e., traits, behavior, influence processes, situational variables, and outcomes). An example of the integrative approach is the self-concept theory of charismatic leadership (see Chapter 9), which attempts to explain why the followers of some leaders are willing to exert exceptional effort and make personal sacrifices to accomplish the group objective or mission.


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