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Great Man Theory

Theories of Leadership


The best & simple way of defining leadership is that it is the art of motivating a group of people to act towards achieving a common goal and excelling. Let us further explore the various theories & approaches to leadership, which can be used based on the given situations

Theories of Leadership

1. Great Man Theory

This theory suggest that “Leaders are born and not made and they will arise when the there is a great need”

This theory is proposed on 19th century by the historian Thomas Carlyle. According to Carlyle, “Effective leaders are those gifted with divine inspiration and the right characteristics”.

Some of the earliest research on leadership looked at people who were already successful leaders. These individuals often included aristocratic rulers who achieved their position through birthright. Because people of a lesser social status had fewer opportunities to practice and achieve leadership roles, it contributed to the idea that leadership is an inherent ability.

However, one of the key problems with the great man theory of leadership is that not all people who possess the so-called natural leadership qualities actually become great leaders. If leadership was simply an inborn quality, then all people who possess the  ​necessary traits would eventually find themselves in leadership roles.

Research has instead found that leadership is a surprisingly complex subject and that numerous factors influence how successful a particular leader may or may not be. Characteristics of the group, the leader in power and the situation all interact to determine what type of leadership is needed and the effectiveness of this leadership.

2. The Trait Theory

The trait theory suggests that “People are born with inherited traits. Some traits are particularly suited to leadership. People who make good leaders have the right (or sufficient) combination of traits.”

The trait model of leadership is based on the characteristics of many leaders - both successful and unsuccessful - and is used to predict leadership effectiveness. The resulting lists of traits are then compared to those of potential leaders to assess their likelihood of success or failure.

Through many researches conducted in the last three decades of the 20th century, a set of core traits of successful leaders have been identified. These traits are not responsible solely to identify whether a person will be a successful leader or not, but they are essentially seen as preconditions that endow people with leadership potential.

Among the core traits identified are:

  • Achievement drive: High level of effort, high levels of ambition, energy and initiative
  • Leadership motivation: an intense desire to lead others to reach shared goals
  • Honesty and integrity: trustworthy, reliable, and open
  • Self-confidence: Belief in one’s self, ideas, and ability
  • Cognitive ability: Capable of exercising good judgment, strong analytical abilities, and conceptually skilled
  • Knowledge of business: Knowledge of industry and other technical matters
  • Emotional Maturity: well adjusted, does not suffer from severe psychological disorders.
  • Others: charisma, creativity and flexibility

The trait theory gives constructive information about leadership. It can be applied by people at all levels in all types of organizations. Managers can utilize the information from the theory to evaluate their position in the organization and to assess how their position can be made stronger in the organization. They can get an in-depth understanding of their identity and the way they will affect others in the organization. This theory makes the manager aware of their strengths and weaknesses and thus they get an understanding of how they can develop their leadership qualities.

However, the traits approach gives rise to questions: whether leaders are born or made; and whether leadership is an art or science. However, these are not mutually exclusive alternatives. Leadership may be something of an art; it still requires the application of special skills and techniques. Even if there are certain inborn qualities that make one a good leader, these natural talents need encouragement and development. A person is not born with self-confidence.

Self-confidence is developed, honesty and integrity are a matter of personal choice, motivation to lead comes from within the individual, and the knowledge of business can be acquired. While cognitive ability has its origin partly in genes, it still needs to be developed. None of these ingredients are acquired overnight.

3. Behavioral Theory

Behavioral Theory suggests that “Leaders can be made, rather than are born. Successful leadership is based in definable, learnable behavior.”

This behavior-focused approach provides real marketing potential, as behaviors can be conditioned in a manner that one can have a specific response to specific stimuli. As a result, we have gone from the supposition that leaders are born, (Great Man Theory) through to the possibility that we can measure your leadership potential (Trait Theory) via psychometrics measurements and then to the point that anyone can be made a leader (Behavioral Theories) by teaching them the most appropriate behavioral response for any given situation.

A behavioral theory is relatively easy to develop, as you simply assess both leadership success and the actions of leaders. With a large enough study, you can then correlate statistically significant behaviors with success. You can also identify behaviors which contribute to failure, thus adding a second layer of understanding.

Kurt Lewin, a researcher at the University of Iowa, and his colleagues, made some of the earliest attempts to scientifically determine effective leader behaviors. They concentrated on three leadership styles: autocratic, democratic, and laissez-faire.

The autocratic leader tends to make decisions without involving subordinates, spells out work methods, provides workers with very limited knowledge of goals, and sometimes gives negative feedback.

The democratic or participative leader includes the group in decision-making; he consults the subordinates on proposed actions and encourages participation from them. Democratic leaders let the group determine work methods, make overall goals known, and use feedback to help subordinates. Laissez-faire leaders use their power very rarely.

They give the group complete freedom. Such leaders depend largely on subordinates to set their own goals and the means of achieving them. They see their role as one of aiding the operations of followers by furnishing them with information and acting primarily as a contact with the group’s external environment. They too avoid giving feedback.

To determine which leadership style is most effective, Lewin and his colleagues trained some persons to exhibit each of the styles. They were then placed in charge of various groups in a preadolescent boys’ club. They found that on every criterion in the study, groups with laissez-faire leaders under performed in comparison with both the autocratic and democratic groups.

While the amount of work done was equal in the groups with autocratic and democratic leaders; work quality and group satisfaction was higher in the democratic groups. Thus, democratic leadership appeared to result in both good quantity and quality of work, as well as satisfied workers.

Later research, however, showed that democratic leadership sometimes produced higher performance than did autocratic leadership, but at other times produced performance that was lower than or merely equal to that under the autocratic style. While a democratic leadership style seemed to make subordinates more satisfied, it did not always lead to higher, or even equal, performance.

These findings put managers in a dilemma over which style to choose. Moreover, many managers are not used to operating in a democratic mode. To help managers decide which style to choose, particularly when decisions had to be made, management scholars Robert Tannenbaum and Warren H. Schmidt devised a continuum of leader behaviors

The continuum depicts various gradations of leadership behavior, ranging from the boss-centered approach at the extreme left to the subordinate-centered approach at the extreme right. A move away from the autocratic end of the continuum represents a move towards the democratic end and vice versa.

According to Tannenbaum and Schmidt, while deciding which leader behavior pattern to adopt, a manager should consider forces within themselves (such as their comfort level with the various alternatives), within the situation (such as time pressures), and within subordinates (such as readiness to assume responsibility).

The researchers suggested that in the short run, depending on the situation, the managers should exercise some flexibility in their leader behavior. However, in the long run, the managers should attempt to move towards the subordinate-centered end of the continuum; as such leader behavior has the potential to improve decision quality, teamwork, employee motivation, morale, and employee development.

Further work on leadership at the University of Michigan seemed to confirm that the employee centered approach was much more useful as compared to a job-centered or production-centered approach. In the employee-centered approach, the focus of the leaders was on building effective work groups which were committed to delivering high performance.

In the job-centered approach, the work was divided into routine tasks and leaders monitored workers closely to ensure that the prescribed methods were followed and productivity standards were met. There were still variations in the level of the output produced.

Sometimes the job-centered approach resulted in the production of a higher output as compared to the employee-centered approach. Therefore, no definite conclusions could be drawn and further studies appeared necessary.

4. Contingency Theory

Contingency Theory suggest that "The leader's ability to lead is contingent upon various situational factors, including the leader's preferred style, the capabilities and behaviors of followers and also various other situational factors"

A contingency theory is an organizational theory that claims that there is no best way to organize a corporation, to lead a company, or to make decisions. Instead, the optimal course of action is contingent (dependent) upon the internal and external situation. A contingent leader effectively applies their own style of leadership to the right situation.

The use of the trait and behavioral approaches to leadership showed that effective leadership depended on many variables, such as organizational culture and the nature of tasks. No one trait was common to all effective leaders. No one style was effective in all situations. Researchers, therefore, began trying to identify those factors in each situation that influenced the effectiveness of a particular leadership style.

The contingency theories focus on the following factors:

a. Task requirements.

b. Peers’ expectations and behavior.

c. Organizational culture and policies.

There are four popular contingency theories of leadership:

(a) Fiedler’s contingency approach to leadership

(b) The path-goal theory,

(c) The Vroom-Yetton model and

(d) Hersey and Blanchard’s situational leadership model.

Fiedler’s Contingency Approach to Leadership:

Fred E. Fiedler provided a starting point for situational leadership research. Fiedler and his associates at the University of Illinois suggested a contingency theory of leadership, which holds that people become leaders not only because of their personality attributes, but also because of various situational factors and the interactions between leaders and followers.

Fiedler’s basic assumption is that it is quite difficult for managers to alter the management styles that made them successful. In fact, Fiedler believes that most managers are not very flexible, and trying to change a manager’s style to fit unpredictable or fluctuating situations is ineffective or useless.

Since styles are relatively inflexible, and since no one style is appropriate for every situation, effective group performance can be achieved only by matching the style of the manager to the situation or by changing the situation to fit the manager’s style. On the basis of his studies, Feidler identified three critical dimensions of the leadership situation that would help in deciding the most effective style of leadership.

Position Power:

This is the degree to which the power of a position enables a leader to get group members to obey instructions. In the case of managers, this is the power derived from the authority granted by the organizational position. According to Fiedler, a leader who has considerable position power can obtain followers more easily than one who lacks this power.

Task Structure:

This refers to the degree to which tasks can be clearly spelled out and people be held responsible for them. When task structure is clear, it becomes easier to assess the quality of performance of the employees, and their responsibility with respect to accomplishment of the task can be precisely defined.

Leader-Member Relations:

This refers to the extent to which group members believe in a leader and are willing to comply with his instructions. According to Fiedler, the quality of leader-member relations is the most important dimension from a leader’s point of view, since the leader may not have enough control over the position power and task structure dimensions.

Fiedler identified two major styles of leadership:

(a) Task-oriented (the leader gives importance to the tasks being performed),

(b) Employee-centered (the leader gives importance to maintaining good interpersonal relations and gaining popularity).

In order to determine whether a leader is task-oriented or employee-centered and to measure leadership styles, Fiedler employed an innovative testing technique.

His findings were based on two sources:

(a) Scores on the least preferred co-worker (LPC) scale – these are ratings made by group members to indicate those persons with whom they would least like to work with; and

(b) Scores on the assumed similarity between opposites (ASO) scale – ratings based on the degree to which leaders identify group members as being like themselves. This scale is based on the assumption that people work best with those with whom they can relate. Even today the LPC scale is used in leadership research.

On the basis of LPC measures, Fiedler found that the leaders who rated their co-workers favorably were those who found satisfaction from maintaining good interpersonal relationships. On the other hand, leaders who rated their co-workers negatively were inclined to be task-oriented.

Fiedler’s model suggests that an appropriate match of the leader’s style (as measured by the LPC score) with the situation (as determined by the three dimensions – position power, task structure, leader-member relations) leads to effective managerial performance.

For instance, a situation characterised by lack of adequate position power of a leader, unclear definition of the task structure and absence of cordial leader-member relationships would favor a task-oriented leader.

At the other extreme, even in a favorable situation wherein the leader has considerable position power, a well-defined task structure and good leader-member relations exist; Fiedler found that a task-oriented leader would be the most effective. Therefore, Fieldler concluded that an employee- oriented leader would be the most effective in moderate situations or situations which fall between these two extremes.

Path-goal Theory:

This theory was developed largely by Robert J. House and Terence R. Mitchell. The path-goal theory of leadership attempts to explain how a leader can help his subordinates to accomplish the goals of the organization by indicating the best path and removing obstacles to the goals.

The path-goal theory indicates that effective leadership is dependent on, firstly, clearly defining, for subordinates, the paths to goal attainment; and, secondly, the degree to which the leader is able to improve the chances that the subordinates will achieve their goals. In other words, the path- goal theory suggests that the leaders should set clear and specific goals for subordinates.

They should help the subordinates find the best way of doing things and remove the impediments that hinder them from realizing the set goals.

Expectancy theory is the foundation of the path-goal concept of leadership. Expectancy theory indicates that employee motivation is dependent on those aspects of the leader’s behavior that influence the employee’s goal-directed performance and the relative attractiveness to the employee of the goals involved.

The theory holds that an individual is motivated by his perception of the possibility of achieving a goal through effective job performance. However, the individual must be able to link his or her efforts to the effectiveness of his/her job performance, leading to the accomplishment of goals.

The expectancy theory comprises three main elements:

(a) Effort-performance expectancy (the probability that efforts of the employees will lead to the required performance level),

(b) Performance- outcome expectancy (the probability that successful performance by subordinates will lead to certain outcomes or rewards), and

(c) Valence (the perception regarding the outcomes or rewards). The path-goal theory uses the expectancy theory of motivation to determine ways for a leader to make the achievement of work goals easier or more attractive.

The path-goal theory suggests that four leadership styles (behaviors) can be used in order to affect subordinates’ perceptions of paths and goals.

i. Instrumental Leadership:

Instrumental Leadership behavior involves providing clear guidelines to subordinates. The leaders describe the work methods, develop work schedules, identify standards for evaluating performance, and indicate the basis for outcomes or rewards. It corresponds to task-centered leadership, as described in some of the earlier models.

ii. Supportive Leadership:

Supportive Leadership behavior involves creating a pleasant organizational climate. It also entails the leaders showing concern for the subordinates and their being friendly and approachable. It is a similar concept to relationship-oriented behavior or consideration, in earlier theories.

iii. Participative Leadership:

Participative Leadership behavior entails participation of subordinates in decision-making and encouraging suggestions from their end. It can result in increased motivation.

iv. Achievement-oriented Leadership:

Achievement-oriented Leadership behavior involves setting formidable goals in order to help the subordinates perform to their best possible levels. Here, leaders have a high degree of confidence in subordinates.

The path-goal theory, unlike Fiedler’s theory, suggests that these four styles are used by the same leader in different situations.

Apart from the expectancy theory variables, the other situational factors contributing to effective leadership include:

(a) Characteristics of subordinates, such as their needs, self-confidence, and abilities; and

(b) The work environment, including such components as the task, the reward system, and the relationship with co-workers

Two general propositions have emerged from the path-goal theory of House and Mitchell:

(i) The behavior of the leader is acceptable and satisfying to subordinates to the extent that the subordinates see such behavior as either an immediate source of satisfaction, or as instrumental to future satisfaction,

(ii) The behavior of the leader will be motivational to the extent that:

(a) Such behavior makes the satisfaction of subordinates’ needs contingent on effective performance, and

(b) Such behavior complements the environment of the subordinates by providing the training, guidance, support, and rewards or incentives necessary for effective performance.

The path-goal theory makes a great deal of sense to the practicing manager. However, this model needs further testing before the approach can be used as a definitive guide for managerial action.

Vroom-Yetton Model:

Another important issue in the study of leadership is the degree of participation of subordinates in the decision-making process. Two researchers, Victor Vroom and Philip Yetton, developed a model of situational leadership to help managers to decide when and to what extent they should involve employees in solving a particular problem.

The Yroom-Yetton model identifies five styles of leadership based on the degree to which subordinates participate in the decision-making process. The five leadership styles are as follows:

Autocratic I (AI):

Managers solve the problem or make the decision themselves, using information available at that time.

Autocratic II (All):

Managers obtain the necessary information from subordinates, then make the decision themselves.

Consultative I (CI):

Managers discuss the problem with relevant subordinates individually, getting their ideas and suggestions without bringing them together as a group. Then the managers make the decision, which may or may not reflect subordinates’ influence.

Consultative II (CII):

Managers share the problem with subordinates as a group, collectively obtaining their ideas and suggestions. Then they make the decision, which may or may not reflect subordinates’ influence.

Group II (GII):

Managers share a problem with subordinates as a group. Managers and subordinates together generate and analyze alternatives and attempt to reach a consensus on the solution. Managers do not try to get the group to adopt the managers’ own preferred solution; they accept and implement any solution that has the support of the entire group.

Vroom and Yetton prepared a list of seven ‘yes-no’ questions that managers can ask themselves to determine which leadership style to use for the particular problem they are facing

Vroom and Yetton developed a decision model by matching the decision styles to the situation according to the answers given to the seven questions. The managers can identify the most suitable leadership style for each type of problem by answering these questions.

Depending on the nature of the problem, more than one leadership style might be suitable. Research conducted by Vroom and other management scholars has demonstrated that decisions consistent with the model have been successful.

Hersey and Blanchard’s Situational Leadership Model:

One of the major contingency approaches to leadership is Paul Hersey and Kenneth H. Blanchard’s situational leadership model. It is based on the premise that leaders need to alter their behaviors depending on a major situational factor – the readiness of followers.

Hersey and Blanchard define readiness as the desire for achievement, willingness to accept responsibility and task-related ability, experience and skill. In other words, the readiness of employees refers to their willingness and ability to handle a particular task.

Hersey and Blanchard believe that the relationship between a leader and follower moves through four phases as followers develop over time. Accordingly, leaders need to alter their leadership style

Task behavior refers to the extent to which the leader has to provide guidance to the individual or group. It includes telling people what to do, when to do it, how to do it, and who is to do it.

Relationship behavior refers to the degree to which the leader engages in two-way communication. It includes listening, facilitating and supportive behaviors.

In the initial phase of ‘readiness’, the manager must spell out duties and responsibilities clearly for the group. This is appropriate since employees need to be instructed in their tasks and should be familiarized with the organization’s rules and procedures. It would be inappropriate to use participatory relationship behavior at this stage because the employees need to understand how the organization works.

Over time, as employees learn their tasks, it is still necessary for the leaders to provide guidance, as the new employees are not very familiar with the way the organization functions. However, as the leader becomes acquainted with the employees, he trusts them more. It is at this stage that the leader needs to increase relationship behavior.

In the third phase, employees become more capable and they actively begin to seek greater responsibility. The leader need not be as task-oriented as before, but will still have to be supportive and considerate so that the employees can take on greater responsibilities.

As followers gradually become more experienced and confident, the leader can reduce the amount of support and encouragement. In this fourth phase, followers no longer need direction from their manager and can take their own decisions.

Hersey and Blanchard’s situational leadership model holds that the leadership style should be dynamic and flexible. In order to determine which style combination is more appropriate in a given context, the motivation, experience and ability of followers must be assessed; and re-assessed, as the context changes.

According to Hersey and Blanchard, if the style is appropriate, it will not only motivate employees but will also help them develop in their professions. Therefore, the leader who wants to help his followers to progress, and wants to increase their confidence, should change his style in accordance with their needs.

If managers are flexible in their leadership style, they can be effective in a variety of leadership situations. If, on the other hand, managers are relatively inflexible in leadership style, they will be effective only in those situations that best match their style or that can be adjusted to match their style.

There are a growing number of situational theories of leadership. Each approach adds some insight into a manager’s understanding of leadership.

Though Fiedler’s theory has the largest research base, since it was formulated earliest, the Vroom-Yetton theory appears to offer the most promise for managerial training.

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