Leadership Theories


Many of the research studies, particularly by behavioral scientists, have been carried on to find out the answer to the question: what makes leader effective? Is his success due to his personality, or his behavior, or the types of followers he has, or the situation in which he works, or a combination of all these? These researchers, however, could not give a satisfactory answer of the question. Instead these researches have resulted in various theories or approaches on leadership, the prominent among these being trait theory, behavioral theory, and situational theory. Each theory has its own contributions, limitations, assumptions, and frame work of analysis. The understanding of the various theories of leadership will provide a guideline to judge as how a leader emerges. 

1. Trait Approach

Trait is defined as relatively enduring quality of an individual. The trait approach seeks to determine ‘what makes a successful leader’ from the leader’s own personal characteristics. From the very beginning, people have emphasized that a particular individual was successful leader because of his certain qualities or characteristics. Trait approach leadership studies were quite popular between 1930 and 1950. The method of study was to select leaders of eminence and their characteristics were studied. It has the hypothesis that the persons having certain traits could become successful leaders.

Various research studies have given intelligence, attitudes, personality, and biological factors. A review of various research studies has been presented by Stodgily. According to him, various trait theories have suggested these traits in successful leaders. (i) Physical and constitutional factors (height, weight, physique, energy, health, appearance);(ii)Intelligence;(iii)Self-confidence (iv) sociability (v) will (initiative, persistence, ambition,)(vi)dominance; and (vii) surgency (talkative, cheerfulness, geniality, enthusiasm, expressiveness, alertness, and originality). In a later study, Giselle has found supervisory ability, achievement motivation, self – actualizing, intelligence, self-assurance, and decisiveness as the qualities related with leadership success. One summary of leadership research found intelligence in ten studies, initiative in six, extroversion and sense of humor in five, and enthusiasm, fairness, sympathy, and self confidence in four. The various studies show wide variations in leadership traits. The various traits can be classified into innate and acquirable traits, on the basis of their source.

Innate qualities are those which are possessed by various individuals since their birth. These qualities are natural and often known and God-gifted. On the basis of such qualities, it is said that ‘ leaders are born and not made’. These qualities cannot be acquired by the individuals

Acquirable qualities of leadership are those which can be acquired and increased through various processes. In fact, when child is born, he learns many of the behavioral patterns through socialization and identification processes. Such behaviors patterns are developed among the child as various traits over a period of time. Many of these traits can be increased through training programmers.

Critical Analysis

The trait theory is very simple. However, this fails to produce clear – cut results. It does not consider the whole environment of the leadership, of which trait may be only one factor. Moreover, no generalization can be drawn about various traits for leadership as these were considerable variations in traits established by various researches. Jennings has concluded, “Fifty years of study has failed to produce a one – personality trait or set of qualities that can be used to discriminated leaders and non-leaders”. In brief, this approach presents the following problems:

  1. There cannot be generalization of traits for successful leaders. This was evident by various researches conducted on leadership traits.
  2. No evidence has been given about the degree of the various traits because people have various traits with different degrees.
  3. There is a problem of measuring the traits. Though there are various tests to measure the personality traits, however, no definite conclusion can be drawn.
  4. There have been many people with the traits specified for leaders, but they were not good leaders. This approach, however, gives indication that leader should have certain personal characteristics. This helps management to develop such qualities through training and development programmes. 

2. Behavioral Approach

This approach emphasizes that strong leadership is the result of effective role behavior. Leadership is shown by a person’s acts more than by his traits. Though traits influence acts, these are also affected by followers, goals, and the environment in which these occur. Thus, there are four basic elements – leaders, followers, goals and environment – which affect each other in determining suitable behavior. Leadership acts may be viewed in two ways. Some acts are functional (favorable) to leadership and some are dysfunctional (unfavorable). The dysfunctional acts are also important in leadership because they demotivate employees to work together. As such a leader will not act in this way. The dysfunctional acts are inability to accept subordinates’ ideas, display of emotional immaturity, poor human relations, and poor communication.

A leader uses there skills – technical, human, and conceptual – to lead his followers. Technical skill refers to a person’s knowledge and proficiency in any type of process or technique. Human skills are the ability to interact effectively with people and to built team – work. Conceptual skill deals with ideas and enables a manager to deal successfully with abstractions, to set up models and devise plans. Behavior of a manager in a particular direction will make him good leader while opposite of this would discard him as a leader. Setting goals, motivating employees for achieving goals, raising the level of morale, building team spirit, effective communication, etc, are the functional behavior for a successful leader. 

Critical Analysis

The basic difference between trait approach and behavioral approach is that former emphasizes some particular trait to the leader while latter emphasizes particulars behavior by him. It is true that favorable behavior provides greater satisfaction to the followers and the person can be recognized as a leader. However, this approach suffers from one weakness, that is, a particular behavior at a time may be effective, while at other times may not be effective. This means the time factor becomes a vital element which has not been considered here. 

3. Situational Approach

The prime attention in this approach is given to the situation in which leadership is exercised. Since 1945, much emphasis in leadership research is being given to the situations that surround the exercise of leadership. The contention is that in one situation leadership may be successful while in others it may not.

For the first time, this approach was applied in 1920 in armed forces of Germany with the objective to get good generals under different situations. Winston Churchill was treated to be the most efficient Prime Minister during the Second World War. However, he was flop afterworlds when situation changed. Ohio State University research has given four situations a variable that affect the performance of leadership.

These are:

i. The cultural environment

ii. Differences between individuals

iii. Differences between jobs

iv. Differences between organisations.

i. The Cultural environment. Culture is a man-made social system of belief, faith and value. Many aspects of life have a significant influence upon behavior and any understanding of employee’s behavior requires the understanding of culture in which he lives. Culture may interfere with rational production efficiency by requiring actions unnecessary or unrealistic from a national point of view, but necessary from the cultural point of view. Thus, leadership should be directed to influence behavior of followed in the context of the culture.

ii. Differences between individuals. Human behavior is caused by some combination of antecedent factors. Besides for any given aspect of behavior, there may be many contributing factors, not causative in nature. There are a variety of such factors which affect behavior in different ways such as aptitudes, personality characteristics, physical characteristics, interests and motivation, age, sex, education, experience, etc. Within this framework, individuals in the leadership process may be classified as (a)leaders, and (b) follower. The individual’s characteristics affect the leadership process. Thus, some persons may perceive a particular leadership style suitable while others may have a different perception. For example, followers with authoritarian personality tend generally to be more comfortable where influence is being exercised.

iii. Differences between jobs: People in the organisation perform different types of jobs. The importance of placing individuals in jobs which they can perform at a satisfactory levels stems from four different considerations – economics, legal, personal and social. Different job conditions influence leadership behavior differently. It is because of the fact that demands of job almost inevitably force a leader into certain kinds of activities. Such requirements do much to set the framework within which the leader must operate. It means the number of leadership options available to the individual is thereby reduced.

iv. Differences between organisations. Various organizations differ on the basis of their size, age, ownership pattern, objective, complexity, managerial pattern, cultural environment, etc. In different types of organizations, leadership process tends to differ. For example, in military or government administration, leadership behavior will be different as compared to business organization

Critical Analysis

The situational theory of leadership gives the analysis how leadership behavior differs with situational variables. Thus the questions, why a manager in a particular situation is successful while in the other situation is unsuccessful, is answered by this theory. However, this approach is not free certain limitations which are as follows:

i. This theory emphasizes leadership ability of an individual in a given situation. Thus, it measures his present leadership potentialities. Whether this individual will fit in another situation is not answered by this theory.

ii. Organizational factors become helpful or constraints to a great extent to individual leaders in exercising the leadership. Thus, it is difficult to measure his personal abilities as a good leader.

iii. The theory does not emphasis the process by which good leaders can be made in the organisation. Thus, it puts a constraint over leadership development process.