Understanding Leadership

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Leadership Theories

Trait theories and behavioural theories of leadership are two of the main historical theories developed in the quest to define what good leadership is.

The earliest of modern theories was the trait theory of leadership which sought to look beyond the idea of leaders simply as exceptional individuals by characterising the general qualities exhibited by successful leaders.

Trait theory

According to trait theory, specific traits and characteristics were believed to be associated with an individual's ability to lead. Lists of leadership traits may still be found in many texts, including physical and intellectual characteristics, personality traits, behaviours and skills. While the existence of a clear relationship between leadership success and these traits has been disputed, developments of trait theory persists in later writing, such as recent research establishing a link between leadership and traits such as logical thinking, persistence, empowerment and self control[1].

Problems identified with traditional trait theory include evidence that different sets of traits will be more effective in different situations; that the long list of traits mixes very different qualities, such as skills, behaviours and abilities; and that traits may be culture and gender specific.

Behavioural theoryLeadership theories

Behavioural theories take a different approach, focusing more on patterns of leadership behaviour than on the individual leader. It suggests that certain behavioural patterns may be identified as leadership styles. Applications of behavioural theory promote the value of leadership styles with an emphasis on concern for people and participative decision making, encouraging collaboration and team development by supporting individual needs and aligning individual and group objectives.

In practice, trait and behavioural theories may be used to develop our own ideas about successful leadership, and it may be useful to consider which leadership traits would be beneficial in particular situations. It may also be instructive to consider how our behavioural style as a manager affects our relationship with the team and promotes their commitment and contribution to the organisational goals.

Situational theory

Situational leadership theories propose that the effectiveness of a particular style of leadership is dependent on the context in which it is being exercised. From situation to situation, different styles may be more appropriate[2]. An emphasis is placed on developing the ability to work in different ways and change management style to suit the situation.

Two common situational theories include Fiedler's contingency model and House's path-goal theory.

Fiedler's contingency model suggests that leadership effectiveness depends on both leadership style (being task or human orientation) and the degree to which the situation gives the leader control and influence.  Three factors affecting a leader's control and influLeadership theoriesence are identified:

- the relationship between the leader and followers, whereby support may more easily be gained by a liked and respected leader;

- the structure of the task, whereby clarity of the goals, methods and criteria will promote greater influence, and;

- the leader's positional power, which may afford the leader greater control.

While Fiedlers work specifically developed the idea of matching the work situation to suit a leader's style, contingency theories also help us to consider how leaders and their followers might behave in different situations.

Hersey and Blanchard developed an influential situational leadership theory that identified four leadership styles which may be selected to suit different situations:

Telling/Directing - for unwilling or poorly resourced personnel

Selling/Coaching - for willing but less competent personnel

Supporting/Participating - for moderately mature personnel

Delegating - for highly competent and mature personnel

The path-goal theory proposes that the effectiveness of leadership is influenced by the interaction of leadership behaviour and contingency factors, including employee characteristics (ability, experience, need for achievement, etc.) and environmental factors (task structure, authority system, team dynamics, etc.). Path-goal theory suggests that leaders should support their team by setting a clear path to follow and removing roadblocks in order to allow them to achieve their goals. The leader is expected to adopt different leadership behaviours fluidly according to the sitLeadership theoriesuation.

Four leader behaviours are identified:

Directive path-goal clarification

Supportive leadership

Participative leadership

Achievement oriented leadership

In path-goal theory, the effectiveness of different styles of leadership style is dependant on the combination of a particular set of employee characteristics, task and environmental factors. This suggests that an effective leader will utilise aspects from various leadership styles, depending on the individual situation.

Situational and contingency theories emphasise a need for applying different leadership styles to adapt to different situations and factors in the organisational environment and in the capabilities and degree of motivation of team personnel.


[1] Organisational Behaviour, Angelo Kinicki, 2008
[2] Ibid.