Leadership Theories Of Bill Gates And Oprah Winfrey Management Essay

This paper serves to critically survey the various leadership theories and evaluate the leadership qualities of two prominent and successful business leaders in USA – Bill Gates (Founder and Chairman of Microsoft Corporation) and Oprah Winfrey (Global Media leader). Chapter 2 describes the background of Gates and Oprah. Gates, from his early interests in computer programming, dropping out from Harvard by choice, to how he successfully transformed his software company, Microsoft, from a small start-up company to one of the world’s largest and most powerful corporations. On the other hand, Oprah, from her difficult childhood experience but early exposure to public speaking, to how her perseverance and self-motivation in doing her best in whatever she does, have brought her to become a global media leader (her own “The Oprah Winfrey Show”, her own Harpo Productions, her own “O, The Oprah Magazine”, etc.).

Chapter 3 explores the evolution of leadership theories, from “Great Man” and “Traits” to the current “Transformational” Theory.

Gates and Oprah leadership qualities are then listed and compared with earlier described leadership theories in Chapter 4 and 5.

Chapter 6 covers the author’s opinions and reasoned analysis about the leadership styles of Bill and Oprah before making the final conclusion in Chapter 7.

2. Background of Bill Gates and Oprah Winfrey

2.1 Bill Gates

William (Bill) Henry Gates was born in Seattle – USA, in 1955. His father was a successful attorney and his mother was a teacher. At age 13, Gates discovered his interest in software and began programming computers on a school computer at the private Lakeside School (Microsoft 2010). In 1973, Gates enrolled at Harvard University but dropped out half-way as he wanted to concentrate on his start-up software business and did not want to miss the opportunity of developing software for personal computers. His company “Microsoft”, the world’s first microcomputer software company, was born in 1975. Gates later wrote, “Our initial insight made everything else a bit easier. We were at the right place at the right time. We got there first” (Krames 2003, p.157).

In 1980, Gates was offered an agreement to provide the operating system (MS-DOS) for IBM’s new PC. He secured his future by insisting that Microsoft retained the copyright to the system, so that he could also license it to other hardware manufacturers. This contractual masterstroke helped propel Microsoft into its position as the country’s largest software company. In 2002, Gates topped the Forbes 400 list of the world’s wealthiest individuals, with a personal fortune of $43 billion (Krames 2003).

Gates handed the reins and the title of CEO over to Steve Ballmer in 2000, as Gates became Chairman and acted as Chief Software Architect of Microsoft Corporation to help in developing next-generation products (Krames, 2003). Since 2006, Ray Ozzie has assumed Gates’ previous title as Chief Software Architect as Gates wanted to devote an increasing proportion of his time to the philanthropic “The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation” (Microsoft 2010). However, Gates continues to serve as Microsoft’s Chairman and an advisor on key development projects after July 2008 (Microsoft 2010). Time Magazine named Gates one of the most influential people of the 20th century.

For the fiscal year ending June 2007, Microsoft had revenues of US$51.12 billion and employs more than 78,000 people in 105 countries and regions (Microsoft 2010). Till now, Microsoft is still one of the world’s largest and most powerful corporations and currently ranked No.36 in Fortune 500 Companies’ list (CNN Money 2010).

2.2 Oprah Winfrey

Oprah Gail Winfrey was born illegitimate in Mississippi – USA, in 1954. She lived her first six years with her grandparents and was taught to read at an early age. Oprah began speaking in front of audiences since she was only 4 years old, touring local churches and reciting others’ sermons by memory (O’Neil 2004). From age 6 to 13, she stayed with her mother in Milwaukee but suffered repeated abuse and molestation by her relatives. Her mother later sent her to live with her father, Vernon Winfrey, in Nashville. With strict rules and high standards, Vernon helped to turn her life around. He taught her that she always had to pursue excellence in order to succeed. Oprah absorbed that attitude and said, “There’s no such thing as failure in my life, I just don’t believe in it” (O’Neil 2004, p.13).

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Oprah’s broadcasting career began at age 17, when she was hired by WVOL radio in Nashville, and two years later signed on with WTVF-TV as a reporter. She also attended Tennessee State University, received her Bachelor Honours Degree in Speech Communications and Performing Arts. Oprah moved up quickly and in 1978 discovered her talent for hosting talk shows when she became co-host of WJZ-TV’s “People are talking”. In 1986, she began broadcasting nationally, via “The Oprah Winfrey Show”, which became the highest rated talk show in television history.

She’s now the host and owner of The Oprah Winfrey Show, which consistently wins high ratings, and the founder of the Harpo Productions, Inc. which produces her television shows and movies. Her “O, The Oprah Magazine”, launched by Hearst Publications in 2000, ranked in the top tier of new magazines for circulation and advertising, becoming the first magazine ever to be both Advertising Age Launch of the Year and Magazine of the Year (O’Neil 2004).

In 2003, Oprah became the first African-American woman to join the ranks of billionaires, as published by Forbes magazine for that year (O’Neil 2004). From 2004-2009, she was the only woman to have been included in all six of TIME’s 100 Most Influential People in World lists.

Today, Oprah’s accomplishments as a global media leader and philanthropist has made her as one of the most respected and admired public figures in the world.

3. Theories on Leadership – Critical Literature Survey

Leadership definition and list of leadership theories

According to Richard Daft (2008, p.4), leadership is defined as follows:

“Leadership is an influence relationship among leaders and followers who intend real changes and outcomes that reflect their shared purposes.”

The evolution of leadership theories started from “Great Man” and “Trait” theories to the present “Transformational” leadership. Kippenberger (2002) reflects the time-line of such evolution:


Leadership Theory

Up to mid-1900s





1967- Present Day

1970s-Present Day

1970s-Present Day

1970s-Present Day

1978-Present Day

1982-Present Day

Great Man Theory

Traits Theory

Lewin’s research into autocratic, democratic &laissez-faire styles

Behavioural Theory (especially Ohio, Michigan, Texas)

Situational Theory

Contingency Theory

Charismatic Leadership

Team Leadership

Servant Leadership

Transformational Leadership

In search of Excellence &thousands of management books on leadership

Table 3.1 Source: Time-line figure from The Leadership Styles by Tony Kippenberger (2002)

Great Man Theory

Based on the belief that leaders are born with innate leadership qualities and destined to lead. This is no longer true in today’s leadership concept.

Trait Theory

Arose from “Great Man” theory which assumed that people are born with inherited traits and so by identifying the list of traits of successful leaders, it was believed that people with such traits could subsequently be recruited into leadership position.

However, there exists people with these traits but are not leaders or people without some of these traits but are leaders; making the results inconsistent and inconclusive. Therefore, researchers started to evolve the next two theories (Behaviorist and Situational).

Stogdill (1974) identified the following traits and skills as vital to leaders:



Adaptable to situations

Alert to social environment

Ambitious and achievement-oriented









Tolerant of stress

Willing to assume responsibility

Clever (intelligent)

Conceptually skilled


Diplomatic and tactful

Fluent in speaking

Knowledgeable about group task



Socially skilled

Table 3.2 Leadership Traits and Skills (Stogdill, 1974)

Behavioural Theory

Behavioural Theory looks at the behaviours of leaders instead of focusing on their inborn traits or capabilities. It believes that leaders can be made, rather than are born and behaviours can be learned more readily than traits. This opens the floodgates to leadership development and schools of researchers.

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Tannenbaum and Schmidt (cited by Daft 2008) illustrated that leadership behaviour could exist on a continuum reflecting different amounts of employee participation. Thus one leader can be autocratic (boss-centred), another democratic (employee-centred), and a third a mix of the two styles. However, Tannenbaum and Schmidt suggested that the leader might adjust their behaviours to fit the circumstances.

John Adair

Blake and Mouton’s Leadership Grid (cited by Daft 2008), as simplified in below table, focuses on production (task) and employee (people) orientations of managers, and combination of concerns between the two extremes. Leaders are rated on a scale of one to nine according to two criteria (Concern for People on vertical axis and Concern for Results on horizontal axis). The highly recommended and most effective style is “Team Management” as it rated High (for People) and High (for Task) and work accomplishment is from committed people while leader is committed to both people and task. Today, the consensus is that leaders can achieve a “high-high” leadership style (Daft 2008).

Concern for People


Country Club Management



Middle-of-the-road Management


Impoverished Management

Authority-Compliance Management




Concern for Results

Table 3.3 The Leadership Grid (simplified)

Situational or Contingency Theory

Leadership style adopted is contingent upon situational factors such as the characteristics of the followers, characteristics of the work environment and followers’ tasks, and the external environment (Daft 2008). Leadership style that is successful in some situations may not be effective in others. Hence, in order to increase the likelihood of successful leadership outcomes, the leader has to fully discern the characteristics of tasks, followers and organizations and subsequently adopt the most effective leadership style.

Fiedler’s Contingency Model (Daft 2008) serves to diagnose whether a leader is task-oriented or relationship-oriented and match leader style to the situation in terms of 3 key elements (Leader member relations, Task structure and Position Power) which can be either favourable or unfavourable to a leader. Task-oriented leaders tend to do better in very easy or very difficult situations whereas relationship-oriented leaders do best in intermediate favourability.

Hersey and Blanchard’s Situational Theory (Daft 2008) focuses on the readiness level of the followers to determine the effective leader behaviours such as Telling, Selling, Participating and Delegating style.

The Path-Goal Theory (Daft 2008) states that leaders are responsible to increase followers’ motivation by clarifying the behaviours necessary for task accomplishment and rewards. The four types of behaviours the leader can adopt are supportive, directive, achievement-oriented and participative styles and the two important situational contingencies are the personal characteristics of followers and the work environment.

The Vroom-Jago Contingency Model (Daft 2008) focuses on varying degrees of participative leadership, and how each level of participation influences quality and accountability of decisions. The model has three major components: leader participation styles (Decide, Consult individually, Consult Group, Facilitate or Delegate), a set of 7 diagnostic questions (High or Low answer) with which to analyse a decision situation, and a series of decision rules. It also takes into account factors such as concern for time versus concern for follower’s development. Leaders can analyze each situation and answer a series of questions that help determine the appropriate level of follower’s participation.

Charismatic Leadership

Charismatic Leadership is based on leader’s personal characteristics as a source of power to emotionally impact people by appealing to both the heart and mind. These leaders create an atmosphere of change, articulate an idealized vision of the future, inspire and motivate followers with an abiding faith.

Team Leadership

Daft (2008) believes that team leadership is based on three principles: Firstly, team leaders must create a vivid vision that is challenging and inspiring so that it provides a strong sense of purpose and direction. Secondly, team leaders must be willing to admit their ignorance or mistakes and the third principle is to provide support and coaching to team members.

Transactional & Transformational Theory

James MacGregor Burns conceptualized leadership as either transactional or transformational in 1978.

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Transactional leadership is a transaction or exchange process between leaders and followers (Daft 2008). Transactional leaders recognizes followers’ needs and desires and then clarifies how those needs and desires will be satisfied in exchange for meeting specified objectives or performing certain duties. Thus, followers receive rewards for job performance, whereas leaders benefit from the completion of tasks.

Transformational leadership is characterized by the ability to bring about significant change in followers and the organization (Daft 2008). Transformational leaders have the ability to lead changes in an organisation’s vision, strategy, and culture as well as promote innovation in products and technologies (Daft 2008). Transformational leaders stimulate and inspire followers to both achieve the outcomes and develop them into leaders. Transformational leadership is based on the personal values, beliefs and qualities of the leader rather than an exchange process between leaders and followers (Daft 2008). Recent studies support the idea that transformational leadership has a positive impact on follower development and follower performance. Avolio, Bass and Jung (Cited by Bass, 2006) have identified the four components of transformational leadership as: Idealized Influence, Inspirational Motivation, Intellectual Stimulation and Individualised Consideration.

3.9 X (Female) & Y (Male) of Leadership

Liz Cook and Brian Rothwell (2000) convincingly describe the differences (structural, operational and chemical) in the brain of male and female, which attribute to their different thinking and act even when faced with similar leadership situations. Their interpretation (Cook & Rothwell, 2000) is that the natural and genetic gifts that the average female and male brain brings to leadership are as follows:



Relationship orientation




Appreciation of paradox

Interpersonal connections

Social awareness

Group working


Appreciation of distinction

Action orientation





Target orientation

Status quo challenge

Desire to be the best


Structure and form

Table 3.4. Average Female and Male genetic gifts

Much of the debate in the 1990s spent time persuading leaders that it was good to be female and it was men who needed to change their leadership style to feminine-oriented leadership, with the emphasis on building relationship. Nevertheless, Cook & Rothwell (2000) believed that leadership training should embrace the strengths of both approaches as the strengths of both sexes are needed to counteract the weaknesses that each sex brings to the leadership equation.

4. Comparison of Bill Gates and Oprah Winfrey Leadership Qualities

4.1 Gates Leadership Qualities

Gates possesses the following traits: Introvert, Intelligent, Knowledgeable, Aggressive, Charisma, Visionary, etc.

Original vision when Microsoft was founded was a computer in every home.

Oprah Leadership Qualities

Oprah possesses the following traits: Extrovert, Intelligent, Self-Confident, Determined, Persistence, Excellent Communicator, Charisma, etc.

Comparison of Gates and Oprah Leadership Qualities with Leadership Theories

Both Gates and Oprah follows Transformational Leadership Theory

5. Comparison of Bill Gates and Oprah Winfrey Leadership Qualities and with Leadership Theories/Models

5.1 Comparison of

6. Author’s opinions about Bill Gates and Oprah Winfrey Leadership Styles – A REASONED ANALYSIS AND APPROACH

Comparison of Bill and Oprah

Motivation and Empowerment, Communication, Teams, Diversity, Learning Organization, Ability in bringing about change

Motivation: Employees’ satisfaction à Customers Satisfaction à Customers Loyalty à Company’s Profitability

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Leadership Communication

Effective listening and understand why listening is important to leadership communication.

Recognize and apply the difference between dialogue and discussion.

Appropriate communication channel for your leadership message.

Use communication to influence and persuade others.

Effectively communicate during times of stress or crisis.

Transformational and charismatic leadership

7. Conclusion

Based on extensive reading and research on leadership books, the author’s conclude that effective leadership really boils down to how each leader first understand himself and then his followers, his organization and all external factors (inclusive of awareness of diversity, cultural differences and fast changing environment) prior to adopting the appropriate leadership styles and behaviours to suit these situations. In other words, there’s no one fixed style as his or her leadership style should vary as per today’s rapid changing and diversified business world.

Gates is a visionary whereas Oprah is a transformational leader.

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