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Theories of leadership - 1840 to 1980

  • Nineteenth century ‘great man’ theories argued that great leaders are born, not made.
  • Trait theory argues certain characteristics and attributes are peculiar to leaders.

Trait-based leadership theories comprise two major schools – the ‘great man’ theories of leadership, that great leaders are born and not made, and trait theory– that certain traits (whether inherited or developed) are preconditions for effective leadership.

‘Great man’ theorists saw history as shaped by the leadership of great men (Bass & Bass, 2008). Key writers include Thomas Carlyle and Francis Galton. Carlyle's 1840 lecture series and subsequent essay On Heroes, Hero-worship, and the Heroic in History painted the great man as possessed of divinely given features from which the masses in his proximity profited (Carlyle, 1841), while Galton studied the hereditary background of great men to determine ‘whether and in what degree natural ability was hereditarily transmitted’ to the extent that he was able to identify the probability of an eminent person having eminent relatives (Galton, 1869). The lasting impact of great man or hero leadership can still be observed over a century later, where responsibility for having the answer to some of the world's most complex problems are placed on the shoulders of individuals, such as presidents and prime ministers and CEOs.

Subsequent to the ‘great man’ theorists, researchers from the early to mid-twentieth century focussed on traits of personality and character to explain leadership and sought to identify those characteristics peculiar to leaders. Bird's 1940 list of 79 relevant traits, taken from 20 psychologically oriented studies demonstrates the extent to which traits were considered quantifiable and predictable (Bass & Bass, 2008). Intelligence, drive, integrity and sociability were central to the lists of almost all the researchers studying trait leadership (Khan, 2013).

Criticisms and challenges

While ‘great man’ theories were criticised for their lack of scientific basis in the nineteenth century, the examination of traits individually and in combination did not fall into general disfavour until the middle of the twentieth century. Stogdill's 1948 critique reviewing 128 published studies on the traits and characteristics of leaders contributed to this. Paving the way for later researchers, Stogdill concluded that the qualities, characteristics, and skills required of a leader are determined to a large extent by the demands of the situation and that ‘an adequate analysis of leadership involves a study not only of leaders but also of situations’ (Bass & Bass, 2008, p. 95).

Stogdill also touched on the relevance of followers to a leader's emergence and effectiveness, concluding that ‘a person does not become a leader by virtue of some combination of traits; but the pattern of personal characteristics of the leader must bear some relevant relationship to the characteristics, activities, and goals of the followers’. The connection between leaders and their followers would also form part of later thinking.

Further reading

Thomas Carlyle (1841). On Heroes, Hero-worship, and the Heroic in History.

R M Stogdill (1948). ‘Personal factors associated with leadership: A survey of the literature’, The Journal of Psychology, 25: 35-71.

  • The Hersey-Blanchard situational leadership theory matches leadership style with employee experience.
  • The Vroom-Yetton contingency model recommends decision-making styles based on situational variables.

The relationship between leaders and followers was central to the situational leadership theories which emerged as trait theory fell into disfavour. The most prominent of these are the Hersey-Blanchard situational leadership theory and the Vroom-Yetton contingency model of decision making.

Hersey and Blanchard's 1969 life cycle theory of leadership (later renamed situational leadership theory) was based on an interpretation of existing empirical research. They propose that different leadership styles be employed depending on the situation, as defined by both the orientation of the manager (either task or relations focussed) and the maturity (or experience) of the employee. In this model the most effective leadership matches the leader's orientation with the subordinate's maturity, beginning with ‘telling’ or directing newly appointed or less experienced employees in their tasks, to ‘selling’ or coaching employees with more experience, through to ‘participating’ or supporting, where managers engage employees' maturity and knowledge to complete tasks. The final style, ‘delegating’, recognises that ‘fully mature subordinates work best when leaders delegate what needs to be done’ (Bass & Bass, 2008, p. 517).

In the mid-1970s Vroom and Yetton used rigorous deduction and support from controlled empirical studies and experiments to develop a model to assist leaders to determine the most effective approach to decision making. Their model suggests the leadership decision style most conducive to effectiveness depends on the characteristics of the situation, and on whether a high-quality decision or subordinate acceptance of the decision is the leader's primary goal. Leaders work through a series of questions resulting in a recommended decision-making style ranging from directive to consultative, and on to participative decision making. A final style, delegative, was added later. Later revisions also encouraged reflection on past decisions as part of the process (Bass & Bass, 2008).

Criticisms and challenges

The dominant situational leadership models have been challenged on a variety of fronts. The Hersey-Blanchard model is criticized because of the lack of internal consistency of its measures, its conceptual contradictions, and its ambiguities. Graeff argues that the model appears to have no theoretical or logical justification, while Blake and Mouton maintain that Hersey and Blanchard misinterpreted the initial empirical evidence (Bass & Bass, 2008).

Studies have found that in certain situations the leadership behaviour prescribed by both the Hersey-Blanchard and Vroom-Yetton models can be detrimental to a group's efficiency and subordinates' satisfaction (Bass & Bass, 2008). In a practical sense, the Vroom-Yetton model is less a cohesive leadership theory than a potentially useful tool for weighing up situational factors to find an appropriate decision making approach, while the Hersey-Blanchard model assumes a direct and individual relationship between a leader and a follower, a rare situation in modern organisations.

Further reading

Paul Hersey, Kenneth H Blanchard & Dewey E Johnson (2012 [1977]). Management of Organizational Behaviour.

Victor H Vroom and Philip W Yetton (1973). Leadership and Decision-Making.

  • Contingency theory focusses on adapting situational variables to better suit a leader's style.

Contingency theorists agree that leadership theories must take into account the situation in which leaders operate. The best known contingency theory, Fred Fiedler's ‘Contingency Model’, assumes a leader's preferred style is effectively set, and suggests adapting situational elements to achieve better outcomes.

Tested through a variety of field studies, the model's basic premise is that ‘the performance of interacting groups is contingent upon the interaction of leadership styles and the favourability of the situation for the leader’ (Mitchell, et al., 1970). The leader's style (defined as either task or relations oriented) is measured using a scale called the ‘Least Preferred Co-worker Scale’ (LPC) in which leaders rate the co-worker they have least enjoyed working with on a variety of factors. A high score indicates a relations-orientated leader, a low score indicates a leader more concerned with task performance (Mitchell, et al., 1970). The rationale behind this is that relations oriented leaders are more inclined to view individuals with whom they least enjoyed working in more positive terms than task oriented leaders (Bass & Bass, 2008). The second element of the model is the ‘situational favourableness dimension’, which takes into account three factors: the degree of support and cooperation offered by the followers; whether the task is structured or unstructured; and the leader's formal authority to direct or reward followers (Chemers, 2000). In combination, these factors result in eight types of situation which, according to the contingency model, differ in the degree to which a leader can influence and control group members (Mitchell, et al., 1970).

According to Fiedler's model a situation is favourable to the leader if the leader is esteemed by the group; if the task is structured; and if the leader has legitimacy and power by virtue of his or her position. The task oriented leader is most likely to be effective in situations that are most favourable or most unfavourable to him or her. The relations oriented leader is most likely to be effective in situations between the two extremes. Fiedler's research and theory suggests that instead of developing adaptable leaders, the leader ought to be placed situations best suited to them, and failing that, situations ought to be manipulated to suit a leader's orientation (Bass & Bass, 2008). Possible changes include varying the structure of the task or work to improve leader-member relations. Figure 2 provides a breakdown of the eight situations and the most effective leader for each.

Figure 2: Breakdown of situations and most effective leaders style for each
Situation Leader-Member Relations Task Structure Leader's Position Power Most Effective Leader
1 Good Structured Strong Task-oriented
2 Good Structured Weak Task-oriented
3 Good Unstructured Strong Task-oriented
4 Good Unstructured Weak Relations-oriented
5 Poor Structured Strong Relations-oriented
6 Poor Structured Weak Relations-oriented
7 Poor Unstructured Strong Relations-oriented
8 Poor Unstructured Weak Task-oriented

Criticisms and challenges

Fiedler's model has been criticised for assuming leadership style is fixed and for suggesting that situations be manipulated rather than leaders adapting their natural style. In terms of the model itself, Mitchell et al cite a number of studies querying the interpretation of high and low LPC scores correlating with people versus task orientation and note that even under the best circumstances, the LPC scale has only about a 50 per cent reliable variance (Mitchell, et al., 1970).

Further reading

Fred Fiedler (1967). A Theory of Leadership Effectiveness.

  • Transactional leadership views leadership in terms of an exchange between leader and follower. At its most basic this transaction involves the exchange of reward for work.
  • Transformational leaders seek to raise followers' consciousness about issues of consequence and subsequently transform followers into leaders themselves.

Based on his observations of political leaders; JM Burns' 1978 book, Leadership, contrasts transactional leadership with transformational leadership. Transactional leadership describes a relationship in which the leader initiates an exchange of ‘valued things’ which motivate and bind followers to the leader (Goethals, 2005). At its most basic, transactional leadership is the exchange of reward for work – rewards could be psychological or material in nature (Bass & Bass, 2008). Transactional leadership also promotes compliance through threat of punishment. Sims and Lorenzi comment that ‘effective leadership reinforces desired followers’ behaviour and eliminates undesired follower behaviour through providing or denying social, symbolic or material rewards and punishments' (Bass & Bass, 2008, p. 366).

Transformational leadership, on the other hand, ‘originates in the personal values and beliefs of leaders, not in an exchange of commodities between leaders and followers’ (Kuhnert & Lewis, 1987, pp. 649-650). A transforming leader:

  1. raises the followers' level of consciousness about the importance and value of designated outcomes and ways of reaching them;
  2. gets the followers to transcend their own self-interests for the sake of the team, organisation or the larger polity; and
  3. raises the followers' level of need from lower-level concerns for safety and security to higher-level needs for achievement and self-actualisation (Bass & Bass, 2008, p. 619).

Rather than operate in one style or the other, Bass proposes that transformational leadership can augment the effects of transactional leadership, citing Presidents Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy as examples of leaders comfortable swapping between styles (Bass & Bass, 2008).

Criticisms and challenges

Critics of transactional leadership point out that rewards motivate only at a base level and produce poorer results where higher level thinking is needed (Bass & Bass, 2008). While exchanges of higher quality goods (i.e. emotional resources) may improve outcomes, approaching leader-follower relationships from a purely transactional perspective is likely to be limiting in the long term.

The main challenge for transformational leadership is that despite being conceived as morally positive, the intentions of transformational leaders cannot be guaranteed which could lead to abuse of power in the hands of a skilled operator. The suggestion that ‘there are pseudo versus authentic transformational leaders’ led to research into authentic leadership (Avolio, et al., 2009, p. 423).

Further reading

James MacGregor Burns (1978). Leadership.

Last reviewed: 
29 March 2018