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Researching Leadership Theory

Researching Leadership Theory
In researching leadership theories, there is no shortage of material, articles and books that outline the history of leadership theory development (Bolden et al 2003; Northouse, 2007; Bass, 2008). This phenomenal amount of literature reflects the vast array of different approaches being aired (Storey, 2004) as well as the wealth of knowledge that exists. There are “trait, behavioural, situational and attribution theories […] visionary, ethical, charismatic, and transactional versus transformational” theories (Abramson, 2007:115). Classical leadership theories have evolved through the 20th century from personality based, to behavioral to context based theories (Nahavandi, 2006). The majority of the literature seems to agree on the main developments in the history of leadership theory.

While the wealth of information is great, and many of the writings present coherent themes, there does not appear to be a single, exhaustive list of the major theories of leadership. To date, the most comprehensive work in this field is Yukl’s review of managerial leadership (1989) and House and Aditya’s review of leadership theories (1997). Thus, in order to better understand where the development of leadership theory stands today, the first challenge was the creation of a coherent outline of the theories of leadership to date. The choice of a chronological order has been made because existing knowledge influences knowledge being developed. This was needed to allow the wealth of academic knowledge to be placed in the reality of the field. An historical chronology offers the most realistic setting to review the development of leadership theories.

The Classic Leadership theories
Table 1 outlines these leadership theories applicable to the field in chronological (as much as is possible) order.

Leadership Theory

Outline description

Main writers

Great Man

The original leadership approach of leaders being born not made. Those certain individuals have exceptional qualities and are destined to lead. The situation brings out the leader.


People have certain natural traits which are more suited to leadership. Leadership traits can be listed. It is the combination of the right traits which makes a leader.

Stodgill, 1974


Leaders are made and not born. Leadership can be defined into certain behaviours which can be learned and developed

Skinner, 1967

Bandura, 1982



Situational theory sees leaders adapting their styles to the context and development level of their followers. Contingency theory proposes that it is situational factors together with the leaders style which determine the success of a leader.

Fiedler, 1964

House, 1974 Hersey, Blanchard, 1972

Path-Goal Theory

The successful leaders create structural paths which help followers attain their work goals

House, 1971


The personal charisma of an individual creates an intense emotional attachment for their followers.

Weber, 1947, House, 1977

Conger, Kanungo, 1994


Emphasis is placed on the leader-follower relation. It is the transactions (reward, punishment) which are the best way for leaders to motivate the performance of their followers

Burns, 1978

Bass, 1985


Leadership is based on the sharing of a vision which motivates and directs the followers

Burns, 1978

Bass, 1985


Leaders who by word or personal example influence the behaviour, thoughts or feelings of their followers

Gardner 1996


The leadership role is most successful if they serve those they lead

Greenleaf, 1977


That the root of any leadership theory is the need for a leader to be authentic, to be self-aware.

Avolio, Gardner, 2005


Leadership takes place in a system of complex interactive dynamics has three entangled roles (adaptive, administrative, enabling) which reflect the dynamic relationship between organisational functions and context

Uhl-Bien et la. 2007


Leadership which takes place in a multi-cultural setting or across national boundaries


Leadership which takes place in a AIT (Advanced Information Technology) environment where leadership influence occurs across a range of AIT media

Avolio, Kahai, Dodge, 2001

Each of the theories presented in the table is outlined in detail in each of the paragraphs below.

The “Great Man” theory is most commonly identified as the original leadership theory and held sway up to the mid-20th century (Cawthon, 1996). The core fundamental idea in this theory is that leaders are born, not made (Callan, 2003). Though left a little on the sidelines today, it is still one of the theories that most captures our imagination of leadership. We all can give examples of great leaders. The fact that the majority of answers would be examples that are male, mainly military or western business leaders – Napoleon, Henry Ford, Churchill, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Walt Disney – is an interesting reflection of where the majority of leadership works sits culturally even today. It was considered that a great man could change the fate of something, even on a large scale, such as that of a nation (Wrightman, 1977). Jennings (1960) adds a very important time dimension to this theory by claiming that “the great man” had the right traits for the right time in history, implying that the same traits at the wrong time would not produce “the great man.” One of the problems with this theory was that it had no distinction between good and evil (Heller, 1997). An interesting argument was put to me in a discussion that the fall of this theory coincided with the end of the Second World War. At this time government and the military had lost many leaders and urgently needed to find or grow new ones. Thus leadership thinkers had to open the conceptual framework to the idea that leaders could be developed. One could argue that, looking at the American business/political leaders of the 1920s and the high number of women in significant positions of power, that this change in reality began after the First World War (Drucker 2003).

The trait theory approach was the first significant move away from the Great Man theory. It rose out of the study of the leadership characteristics or traits which differentiate leaders from others. Essentially it aimed to develop the list of key characteristics or traits which could be used to define successful leaders. Despite lengthy and numerous amounts of academic research, no one set of traits has ever been agreed upon and the research has been rather inconclusive (Bohlen, 2003; Mullins, 1999). Stodgill’s listing of key leadership traits and skills (Stodgill, 1974), often seen as the foundation of this research line, still holds true today. Many of these traits still emerge in current leadership writings and can still be found in the majority of the recruitment criteria used today. However traits are difficult to agree upon and researchers on leadership often ended up with long lists which contained a high degree of subjectivity (Mullins, 1999). Leadership theorists were forced to look elsewhere, directed in a way by Stodgill himself who suggested that trait study should be integrated with situational demands (House, Aditya, 1997).

Behavioral leadership theories developed out of dissatisfaction with the trait approach and moved away from trait theory in that they considered that leaders are made and not born. These theories put forward the idea that leadership can be defined into certain behaviors that can be learned and developed (Bandura, 1982; Skinner, 1967). The behavioural theorists were the first to clearly put forward a case for the fact that leadership can be learned and that it did not rely on any inherent talent. This theoretical approach became the springboard for the numerous studies, which we continue to see today, about what leaders actually do (Kotter, 1990). Out of this research came the identification of two broad classifications of leadership behaviors – task and person oriented behaviors (House, Aditya, 1997). The assumption of this theory, that there were universally accepted and effective leadership behaviors, has caused its acceptability to decline due to the lack of consideration given to context.

The situational or contingency theories focused on the need to look at context and claimed that effective leadership is contingent on the situation (Callan, 2003). The idea that different leadership behaviors or skills are needed in different contexts today seems rather common sense, but Fiedler’s work in the 1960s broke new ground. Fielder put forward that there is no one best way to lead, and that the choice of leadership skill set, behavior and style would be contingent on the situation (Fiedler, 1969). Essentially it considers that performance is contingent on the interaction of the style of leader and favorability of the situation for the leader (Mitchell et al 1970). Fielder defined three key aspects – leader-member relations, task structure and power – which would condition leadership choice of skill and style (Fielder, 1969). This theory believes that the “type of leadership behavior that will be most effective is contingent on the favorableness of the task situation” (Sadler, 2003:77). A particular form of contingency theory, known as situational, focused on the point that leadership style is a function of the situation (Hersey, Blanchard, 1988).

The path-goal theory of leadership attempted to address the mixed results of leadership research in the 1960s that showed an unclear relationship between structure and the satisfaction of followers (House, 1971). It clarified the relationship between structure, performance and job satisfaction and the context of the type of work carried out (routine versus non-routine tasks and satisfying versus non-satisfying tasks). Path-goal theory argues that the leadership style used is altered depending on the followers’ need of clarity about what the goals/expectations are, or how to get to them (the path). Thus leadership becomes a calculation of style appropriate to achieving the goal along a defined path (Plowman et al, 2007). Essentially it advanced the work of the situational/contingency theorists by developing the practical application of a leadership approach to goal achievement.

Individuals who exercise charismatic leadership can be defined as leaders who, “by force of their personalities, are capable of having profound and extraordinary effects on followers” (House, Baetz, 1979:399). It is a theory of leadership that has gained much public admiration. Followers are attracted to charismatic leaders, and this theory typically characterises leadership as a role that is granted by devoted followers rather than a given position. In essence, “charismatic leaders differ from other leaders by their ability to formulate and articulate an inspirational vision and by behaviours and actions that foster an impression that they and their mission are extraordinary” (Conger et al, 1997:291). Charismatic leadership is said to have three core aspects – envisioning, empathy and empowerment (Choi, 2006). Charismatic leadership is in fact value-neutral, i.e. it makes no distinction between good or bad, ethical or immoral leadership (Howell, Avolio, 1992). A truly charismatic leader can lead followers to war (Hitler), heroic self-sacrifice (Jeanne d’Arc), cult beliefs (Jim Jones), peace (Mandela, Gandhi), or service (Mother Teresa). It is the ethical use of their power and the aspect of service (i.e. the wish to contribute to the welfare of others) that marks the outcome difference of a “good” charismatic leader. Research has shown that while charismatic leadership is clear in the leader-follower relationship at an individual level, it is less clear at the leader-group relational level (Seltzer, Bass, 1990). Charismatic leadership is a much discussed aspect of leadership; however, its elusive nature has meant that its study is conspicuously absent from research data (Conger, Kanungo, 1987).

Transactional leadership theory deals with the role of “reward” (e.g. pay, promotion, etc,) as a motive for achieving results and “punishment” (e.g. loss of salary, demotion, loss of position) as a motive to ensure adherence to the goal to be achieved. The transactional leader is a leader whose actions take place within the existing organizational system or culture and who makes no effort to change that system (Waldman et al, 2001). They recognize the actions their subordinates must take in order to achieve outcomes (Bass, 1985) and develop agreements with them which make clear what they will receive if they do something right and what will happen is they do something wrong (Bass, Avolio, 1993). By default, this approach acts to strengthen the existing structures and culture within an organization. The leader’s role is to make the goal clear and to select the appropriate rewards to ensure motivation towards that goal (Sadler, 2003).

Transformational leadership inspires followers to do more than they would have expected to accomplish (Bass, 1985). This theory was first put forward by Burns in the 1970s and was elaborated on by Bass in the 1980s. Since then it has gained enormous popularity both in academic and practitioner circles (Brown, Keeping, 2005). It can be defined as the process of engaging commitment in a context of shared values and vision (Sadler, 2003), or the aligning of the interests of the organization and its members (Bass, 1999). For Burns, this differed from charismatic leadership, which inspired and motivated, but did not necessarily transform and change; charismatic leadership is an inherent trait, whereas transformational leadership is a behavior that can be learnt (Tichy, Devanna, 1986). Transformational leadership is said to have four components – idealized influence, individual consideration, intellectual stimulation and inspiration (Bass, Avolio, 1990; Avolio, et al, 1991). It is a leadership theory that involves maximizing mutual interest and restraint in the use of power (Sadler, 2003). Transformational leadership was, and is, seen as leadership that broadens and elevates the interests of the follower, and that generates awareness and motivation towards the purpose and mission of the organization. It is a theory of leadership that brings the group purpose above individual needs for the attainment of a common goal (Seltzer, Bass, 1990). Burns sees the leader-follower relationship as a two-way transforming possibility, in which leader and follower are transformed by the interaction.


Cognitive theory comes from the cognitive science approach, and its contribution to leadership theory is to look at how both leaders and followers think and process information. Leaders, it is suggested, achieve effectiveness through the stories they relate and embody (Gardner, 1996; Boal, Schultz, 2007). The cognitive approach looks at how leaders think, and how their behavior is determined as a response to the information they receive (Wofford, 1994). Its contribution is rather recent and potentially can help leadership theorists explain how leaders and followers understand and process information and use that to make decisions (Avolio et al, 2009). This potential is felt to be yet explored as leadership theory per se.

The idea of servant leadership was first put forward in the 1970s by Robert Greenleaf, and it has gained a rather impressive following. His key idea was that the leader was first a servant. “The servant-leader is servant first…It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. The conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead” (Greenleaf, 2002:27). Greenleaf argued that this view lifts leadership above the division of concepts, language and practice and allows leaders to bring people and organizations together towards a common goal. He proposes leadership that contains a depth of commitment to all the stakeholders. The servant-leader shares leadership, displays authenticity and builds a community within the organization’s members (Washington, 2007). While idealistic, the concept has gained increasing momentum due to the fact that it encompasses an ethical and ecological stance that is sustainable. It is a leadership that is aware that the end and means are inseparable and that we live in a world of relationships (Covey, 2002). While measurement of servant leadership is (and will always be) problematic, it is felt that this is a construct of leadership that has a place in the current organizational reality (Melchar et al, 2008).

The concept of authenticity is rooted in the commonly heard phrase “to thine own self be true” (Avolio, Gardner, 2005). Authentic leadership is commonly agreed to encompass balanced processing, internalized moral perspectives, relational transparency and self-awareness (Avolio et al, 2009). It encompasses two aspects; that of “owning one’s personality” and of acting in accordance with that “true self” (Gardner et al, 2005:344). It arose out of a post-Enron need of responsible leadership, i.e. the leader taking responsibility for the moral obligations of the organization (Novicevic et al, 2006). Authentic leadership is defined on the basis of a leader’s self-concept and of the relationship between that self-concept and their actions; authenticity is seen as an attribute, rather than a value or a style (Shamir, Eilam, 2005). Leaders may be authentic transformational leaders or inauthentic. Authenticity is proposed as a root construct of leadership (i.e. a construct that is not confined to a particular leadership style), although further research is needed to see whether it is a basis of good leadership regardless of participative, directive or inspirational leadership styles (Avolio et al, 2009). While important, the discussion on authentic leadership still lacks focus on the role, i.e. to be authentic to oneself is one thing, but that alone is not enough; a leader must also authentically fill a role.

Proponents of complexity leadership theory put forward the idea that in the reality of today’s organizational contexts, leadership theory must evolve in order to take into account complex adaptive environments (Marion, Ulh-Bien, 2001; Lichtenstein et al, 2006). Its proponents argue that much of the above leadership theory is based on top-down, bureaucratic paradigms (Uhl-Bien et al, 2007) and this is not effective in the current context of knowledge systems. “Complexity examines the clustering of ideas and people and what happens when these clusters interact” (Marion et al, 2005:617). Complexity leadership theory views leadership as an interactive dynamic system, of unpredictable agents that interact with each other in complex feedback networks which produce adaptive outcomes (Uhl-Bien et al, 2007). With this theory the unit of analysis is not the leader but the situation in which the leader operates; the relationships are not defined by their hierarchical position, but rather by their interactions at all levels. It attempts to address the issue of leadership theory needing to be “embedded in complex interplay of numerous interacting forces” (Uhl-Bien et al, 2007:302). The framework for complexity leadership theory is made up of three leadership roles which are entangled (i.e. constantly interacting together). These are (Uhl-Bien et al, 2007):

· administrative leadership – the actions which take place in formal managerial roles and that plan and coordinate the organisations activities

· adaptive leadership – the interactive dynamic that emerges from the relationships in a context and which produce adaptive outcomes

· enabling leadership – actions which foster and enable new adaptive outcomes to emerge

The appropriateness of this approach to leadership is reflected by the numerous research articles published dedicated to the subject. Its proponents argue that its call for a deeper understanding of leadership and the context within which it takes place is a necessary basis in order for leadership to advance (Osborn, Hunt, 2007).

Cross-Cultural leadership theory has not been adequately defined as a leadership theory. There is a definition offered by House et al (1997) asserting that expected, accepted and effective leadership behavior varies according to the culture within which it takes place. They put forward the idea that effective leadership is contingent on culturally endorsed implicit theories of leadership (House, Aditya, 1997). While this could be a theory of leadership, it remains rather focused on national culture rather than being truly cross-cultural. That culture is a key moderator of context is widely accepted (Walumba et al, 2007). Many studies have focused on leadership styles in, and across, cultures (Joynt, Warner 1996; Graen, 2006; Project GLOBE, House et al, 2004), again mainly in relation to national cultures. In fact, it is often the case that researchers are simply applying a cultural lens to extant leadership theories (Dickson et al, 2003) driven by the need to understand what kind of leadership is effective in different cultures. This has limited the study to equate “culture” to “national identity” (Holmbery, Akerblom, 2006), and much of the reference ground-work goes back to that of Hofstede (1991), which, while seminal, remains much criticized for its for its overly simplistic dimensional conceptualization of culture (Dickson et al, 2003). It is well documented that leaders must face the increasing challenges of managing diverse workforces created by today’s globalized environments, which increasingly finds globalized workforces within single organizational structures (Chrobot-Mason et al, 2007). There is an increasing need to develop this aspect of the study of leadership in multicultural contexts that are often the reality of today’s organizations. Avolio et al (2009:438) even identify the concept of “global leadership” as the term incorporating an increasing research field aimed at identifying leadership that is effective across a variety of cultures, i.e. a true cross-cultural leadership theory.

E-leadership is a term that has grown out of the changing nature of the workplace and the increasing presence of Advanced Information Technology (AIT) as a determining factor of the working environment. It focuses research on leadership taking place in high technology environments, technologies that help leaders to monitor, plan, take decisions, share and control information; E-leadership is defined as “the social influence process mediated by AIT to produce a change in attitudes, feelings, thinking, behavior and or performance with individuals, groups and/or organizations” (Avolio et al, 2000:616). Context here is a key construct, as technology is both a cause and consequence of the structures in organizations (Weick, 1990). E-leadership is defined by this new AIT context; it can be enabled or completely undermined by the AIT introduced (Avolio et al, 2000). The question remains – is it a leadership theory or is it a contextual influence on how leadership takes place? The increasing number of examples where interactions are mediated by technology would imply that these situations require a specific leadership theory, as all the models mentioned so far implicitly imply face-to-face interactions.

Other leadership theories
Naturally, there are more than the fourteen theories of leadership. In terms of academically accepted theories, and ones that have a substantive research basis, there are a number of other theories that have not been included in Table 1.

· New-genre leadership can be defined as a mix of charismatic and transformational leadership theory, with a focus on leader behavior, visioning, inspiring, ideological and moral values. It looks at leadership “emphasising charismatic leader behaviors, inspiring, ideological and moral value, as well as transformational leadership” (Avolio et al, 2009:428). It is a rather wide mixture of transformational and charismatic leadership theories in a context-bound condition. This mix is felt to offer more complexity, rather than simplicity, to leadership research.

· Leader-member Exchange (LMX) – In LMX theory, leaders develop different exchange relationships with followers, and the quality of these relationships influences the outcome (Graen 1976, Graen, Uhl-Bien, 1995). It sees that the relationship between the leader and follower holds the key to the quality of the outcome of the leadership act; the more effective the relationship or exchange, the more effective the result. The literature has focused exclusively on the consequences of LMX relationships (Avolio et al, 2009). While it is one of the few theories of leadership focused on leader-follower relationships, it is transactional in nature. The research into LMX generally has taken place in a closed social system (Gehani, 2002), while leadership frequently takes place in an open system. LMX has demonstrated the benefits of high quality leader-member relations, but some would argue that there is still relatively little understood about what happens within those relationships (Uhl-Bien, Maslyn, 2000). These aspects are seen to limit its practical use. LMX is felt rather to be a view of leadership that emphasizes leader-member relations and their quality (Atwater, Carmeli, 2009), rather than a leadership theory per se. This is clearly shown in the work of Henderson et al (2009), who take various leadership theories and apply them to the LMX model to show how different theories result in different leader-member relationships, which would seem to imply that it is not a leadership theory, but rather a way of modelling leader-follower relationships. LMX research, while significant, has been rather modest in resulting correlations between leader and member reports and their implications for outcome of LMX (Cogliser et al, 2009). Some would even go as far to say that there is a construct validity problem with the results from LMX studies (Schriesheim, Cogliser, 2009).

· Shared leadership theory – a leadership theory where the members collectively share the leadership role. While writers as early as Follett (1924) have advocated for shared leadership, there is still little agreement on its definition (Avolio et al, 2009).

· Spiritual leadership theory can be defined as “comprising the values, attitudes, and behaviors that are necessary to intrinsically motivate one’s self and others so that they have a sense of spiritual survival through calling and membership” (Fry 2003:694). Fry bases his concept on a definition of leadership as a motivation to change. Zohar even takes the idea one step further to promote the idea of spiritually intelligent leadership defined as the “power a leader can unleash in individuals or organizations by evoking people’s deepest meanings, values and purposes” (Zohar, 2005:46). Research has shown that there is considerable overlap between leadership values and those espoused by spiritual teachings (Reave, 2005). Some would argue that this paradigm adds a missing piece to the leadership literature, that of a sense of calling or service (Avolio et al, 2009) linking to something deeper than material returns. On the other hand, this leadership theory, by default, brings the leader into a central role in an individual’s life wherein their practice of spiritual growth is directly influenced by the leader. Poole (2009) sees the organizational competitive advantages that the focus on spirituality in the workplace would bring (higher commitment, motivation, engagement, performance), but one is left wondering as to whether this is really spirituality or just effective leadership practice. The question is still open as to whether this is another “fad that runs its course” (Dent et al, 2005:647).

The four theories discussed here have been excluded from Table 1 for one of three reasons – (1) their addition to the literature is partial and covered in other theories, (2) their theory basis is as yet unclear in terms of applicability to leadership, or further research is still needed to clarify their definition, (3) they are a mix of other theories that have already been taken into account separately.

Summarizing Leadership Theory
Fourteen leadership theories are listed in Table 1, representing the range of leadership theories found, and widely accepted, in academia. The additional four theories mentioned in section 1.2 have an academic research basis (some rather considerable), and yet are theories that are not fully accepted. Together these theories represent the wide variety of views on leadership. All have been substantiated by considerable research.

The subject of leadership skills has also received much attention in the leadership literature. Mumford et al (2007) describe the various conceptualizations of leadership skills in terms of cognitive, interpersonal, business and strategic. Typically, the cognitive skills are linked to the underlying information processing that occur within the individual (Lord, Hall, 2005); interpersonal skills are those linked to the interaction with others. The aspect of leadership skills will not be further developed in this thesis. Leadership theories, by their nature, imply the use of specific skills and these are defined by the theory, context and nature of the leadership being applied. Thus they are not considered to be an underlying fundamental of leadership. The same logic has been applied to the subject of leadership styles. Style is personal, and can be culturally orientated (Sadler, Hofstede, 1976) and, like values, is unique to an individual (Nahavandi, 2006). Style is a way of putting good leadership into practice and not considered as an underlying fundamental.

Ph.D.:The power of a Lollipop: from theory to action

May, Feena. 2010-2011

Head of Learning and Development

International Committee of the Red Cross

Open Source


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