Overview and analysis of Leadership theories

“Men make history and not the other way around. In periods where there is no leadership, society stands still. Progress occurs when courageous, skillful leaders seize the opportunity to change things for the better” Harry S. Truman.

Leadership has been defined in several ways. In its simplest form, leadership has been described by Susan Ward as the art of motivating a group of people to act towards achieving a common goal. Leadership, however, is a very complex subject, and encompasses such wide ranging disciplines like human psychology, man management, management of resources, communication skills, technical knowledge etc. A leader, therefore, is a person who has these skills and knows how to use them to motivate, guide and inspire the team to achieve his vision.

For centuries, leadership has traditionally been associated with the military. In recent times, however, the importance of business leadership has become more and more evident. As a consequence of this paradigm shift, the old theories of leadership have given way to new ones, more aligned towards the business environment.

Overview of Leadership Theories

The concept of leadership has witnessed a gradual change from individual leadership to organisational leadership. A study of the evolution of leadership theories through the ages clearly highlights this point.

The earliest studies on leadership were based largely on existing leaders, giving rise to the theory that leaders were born, not made. The dominance of the male gender, particularly in military leadership, gave rise to the Great Man theory, which suggested that born leaders would arise when the situation called for them. It is quite evident that in the modern sociological environment, this theory can be considered to be irrelevant.

An offshoot of the Great Man theory was the Trait theory, which suggested that some people had certain inborn traits that qualified them to be good leaders. This theory suffers from similar drawbacks as the Great Man theory. Moreover, both these theories are applicable to individual, rather than organisational leadership.

A quantum jump from the earlier theories came with the concept of the Behavioural theory of leadership. With this, the focus shifted to learning, rather than inheriting the art of leadership. The Participative Leadership theory evolved on the premise that better decisions could be made if the process involved several people instead of one person alone. On the other hand, according to the Situational Leadership theory, the leadership style would depend on situational factors.

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In the study of leadership in the context of modern business, the two most popular theories that have emerged are the Transactional theory and the Transformational theory. The transactional leaders work through a process of clear structures, and a system of rewards and punishments forms an integral part of the process. The Transformational theory is based on the leader’s vision and his ability to get his subordinates to follow that vision by personally inspiring them and transforming them by enlarging their vision, motivating and providing intellectual development.

Literature Review

Studies on leadership have been carried out since time immemorial. In circa 500 BC, Sun Tzu described the five traits of a successful leader (Gagliardi, 1999). It is believed that his thoughts on leadership closely approximate the Situational Leadership theory of modern times. In 16th century AD, Niccolo Machiavelli put forth theories on how a prince should acquire and maintain his state. Other strategists of their times such as Lao Tzu and Confucius of China and Chanakya of India also taught leadership principles some of which are still relevant today.

Since the turn of the twentieth century, when the action shifted from the battlefield to the boardroom, new leadership theories have been presented, existing ones have been revised, reviewed and reframed, and new leadership gurus have become household names.

The Trait Theory. The Trait theory has been in existence since the early 20th Century. Various studies carried out by different researchers (Stogdill, 1948, 1974; Mann, 1959; Lord, DeVader and Allinger, 1986; Locke and Kirkpatrick, 1991) are in agreement that specific traits exist that distinguish leaders from non-leaders, but differences exist in the traits identified by them. However, it is evident that mere possession of these traits does not make a leader as a combination of personality and situation would determine the leadership qualities at any point of time. Moreover, the identifications of traits is a subjective issue, and their validity would remain debatable.

The Behavioural or Style Approach. In the early 1950s, the focus of leadership theories shifted from traits to behaviours as many scholars felt that leader behaviour was more important than mental, physical or emotional traits. Two studies carried out by Ohio State University and the University of Michigan in the late 1940s and 1950s set out to validate this theory. Using a questionnaire on a sample population, the Ohio study concluded that there were two distinct aspects of leadership: initiating structure or task oriented behaviour; and consideration, or showing concern for subordinates. The Michigan study concluded that leadership behaviour could be either employee oriented, or production oriented. Both these studies indicate that there are certain universally applicable leadership behaviours, but there is no proper empirical evidence to support these. Moreover, these studies have not taken the effects of variable situations into consideration.

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Situational Leadership Theory. Based on Reddin’s 3-D Management Style theory and developed by Blanchard and Hersey (1969), this is one of the most widely used theories that has found widespread use in training and employee development and works on the premise that the situation will dictate the type of leadership. Depending upon the situation, the leadership style could either be directive or supportive. The leader will have to modify his style along with the variance in employee morale and skills. The figure below represents the correlation between the leadership style and the situation:

The Situational leadership model places the onus of employee development on the leader. Because of its simplicity and ease of implementation, this is in wide use for training of leaders. It needs to be borne in mind that as the development of subordinates progresses, the leader himself also needs to develop and to adapt to the changing situation.

Transformational Leadership.

The term “transformational leadership” was first used by Downton (1973) but the concept was brought into prominence by James MacGregor Burns (1978). According to this theory, transformational leaders provide inspiration and motivate their subordinates to work towards a common objective. Burns divided leaders into two categories: the Transactional leaders who work on a system of rewards and punishments for the work done; and the Transformational leaders who make a connection with the followers to work towards the common goal. This theory was further developed by Bernard Bass (1985), who put forth the view that transformational leaders make their followers aware of the importance of the task and of their own needs for personal growth, while at the same time motivating them to place the organisational interests before their own. Further research has been carried out by Bass & Avolio, 1990; Kunhert, 1994; and Avolio, 1999.

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Studies have demonstrated that transactional leaders had generally performed up to the expected standards, while transformational leaders have exceeded expectations (http://www.abolrous.com/hazem/leadershiptheories.pdf). Transformational leadership has been widely accepted by many organisations, but although “they make an important contribution to the literature, but they should not be heralded as a revolutionary approach that makes all the earlier theories obsolete.” (Yukl, 1999). Contemporary studies of various leaders and organisations indicate that for the successful implementation of organisational goals, there is a requirement of a mix of transformational leadership (at the top management level) and transactional leadership (at the implementation level).

Notable amongst the research on this theory are the ones carried out by Bennis & Nanus (1985) and Trichy & DeVanna (1986, 1990), using similar methodologies of interviewing a large number of CEOs. Bennis & Nanus came to the conclusion that the traits of transformational leaders can be described by four “I’s”:

Idealized Influence (leader becomes a role model)

Inspirational Motivation (team spirit, motivate, and provide meaning and challenge).

Intellectual Stimulation (creativity & innovation)

Individual Consideration (mentoring)

Trichy & DeVanna found that leaders bring about change by way of a three step process:

Recognise the fact that there is a need for change

Create a vision and design a plan based on this vision

Institutionalize the change



http://sbinfocanada.about.com/od/leadership/g/leadership.htm Ward, Susan: Leadership

http://changingminds.org/disciplines/leadership/theories/leadership_theories.htm Leadership Theories

Bass, B. M. (1990). From transactional to transformational leadership: Learning to share the vision. Organizational Dynamics, (Winter): 19-31.

Gagliardi, G., (2001) Sun Tzu’s art of war plus its amazing secrets: The keys to strategy. Clearbridge publishing. Seattle, WA.

http://www.1000ventures.com/business_guide/crosscuttings/leadership_situational.html Situational Leadership

Leadership Theory and Practice, Peter G. Northouse, Third Edition

Management of Organizational Behavior, Paul Hersey, Seventh Edition

http://www.abolrous.com/hazem/leadershiptheories.pdf Leadership Summary

European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, 1999, 8 (1), 33-48: An Evaluative Essay on Current Conceptions of Effective Leadership, Gary Yukl

http://business.nmsu.edu/~dboje/teaching/338/transformational_leadership.htm Transformational Leadership: David M. Boje (2000)

http://psychology.about.com/od/leadership/a/transformational.htm Transformational Leadership: Kendra Cherry

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