Skip to content

Leadership Theory

March 4, 2011

Leadership theory: Jeremy Shearer
Over nearly a century of academic leadership investigation, more than 65 differing understandings and views have been developed to explain what exactly leadership is (Fleishman, et al., 1991; Stogdill, 1948). Overtime, however, a few key threads of study have emerged as the common realms of thought in leadership.
One of the earliest attempts of a concise theory amongst leadership scholars was that of the great man theory (Northouse, 2007). Under this perspective, the overarching belief was that leaders were made, rather than born. This focus on leadership utilizes a very strong trait perspective and holds the assumption that leadership is a very restrictive position and is only given to a very elite group of individuals (Bass, 2008). Obviously, this focus of theoretical development focused largely on the study of great political, social, religious, and military leaders in order to identify the traits that they were born with, which led them to become the great leaders that they were (Bass, 2008; Jago, 1982; Northouse, 2007). However, after this theory was challenged in a 1948 (Stogdill) review, many academics conceptualized the importance of the situation that the leadership was manifest in and instead, chose to identify the traits of the leader relative to the situation they were in (Northouse, 2007). However, in more recent studies of trait leadership, the theory has once again shifted back to the physicality of the traits of those who seem to become leaders (Bass, 2008).
Another important thread in the leadership literature was developed by those who believed that leadership was about the skills that the leader possessed (Northouse, 2007). Much like the trait approach to leadership study, this very leader-centered approach focused on the skills and the abilities that the leader possessed, rather than the traits they exhibited (Bass, 2008). While this thread of leadership studied had been long established (Bass, 2008), it wasn’t until the classic article by Katz was published in 1955 that this thread of study hit the mainstream. In his study, Katz(2009) for the first time, sought to identify the set of measurable and developable skills that managers utilize in leading their departments. Since that study, trait research has attempted to outline a series of skills that a leader must possess and continue to develop in order to be effective at solving complex organizational problems (Fleishman, et al., 1991; Mumford et al., 2000; Yammarino, 2000). These skills, originally identified by Katz (2009) and later advanced by numerous researchers (Mumford, et al., 2000; Zaccaro & Klimoski, 2001), focused on both individual attributes, such as general and crystallized cognitive ability, motivation, and personality, as well as competencies of the leader such as problem-solving skills, social judgment skills, and knowledge (Northouse, 2007).
The behavioral approach to leadership study continued the thread of leader centered study as researchers sought to identify what leaders do and how they act (Blake & McCanse, 1991; Blake & Mouton, 1986, 1994). This approach, although still not focused on the various dynamics of leadership involved, did seek to explore what made the process of leadership happen. While many of the findings of this tread of study were much more focused on the topic of management (i.e.: the Blake & Mouton management grid), the findings from a group of researchers at the University of Michigan began to understand this perspective of leadership in terms of the leaders effect on small groups (Cartwright & Zander, 1960; D. Katz, 1951; Likert, 1961, 1967). This focus on the leaders’ actions within the group would lead to a stronger upsurge in the study of team leadership.
The study of team leadership brought with it a new perspective in leadership studies; rather than being leader-centered in nature, this perspective identified the importance of the group dynamic including the leader and the followers (Kogler-Hill, 2007). Although group dynamics have been studied in the social sciences since about the 1920’s (Klein, 1956), it wasn’t until sometime around the 1950’s and 1960’s that the focus of groups dynamics shifted to developing the team through leadership effectiveness (Day, Gronn, & Salas, 2004; McGrath, Arrow, & Berdahl, 2000; Pittinsky & Simon, 2007; Zaccaro, Rittman, & Marks, 2001). Perhaps the most effective component to the team perspective of leadership is that it starts with the leaders’ mental model of the current situation (Zaccaro, et al., 2001). This focus allows for the understanding of the knowledge, skills, and abilities of the leader, as well as their cognitive ability much like the earlier skills model (R. Katz, 2009). In addition, this model includes an awareness and understanding of the situation (Blanchard, Zigarmi, & Nelson, 1993) by the leader prior to making leadership decisions. Taking these two perspectives into account, the leader then follows a common decision model to determine what is best for the group. One of the commonly accepted models as developed by Hill (2007) is presented in Figure 2. This model creates an outline for the leader in understanding how leadership is best established within the group process. As Hill points out, the leader must first make a decision as to the need for active leadership within the group, whether the focus of that active leadership should be task related or relationship related, and whether the actions need to focus on the internal issues of the group or the external environment of the group. In all, the focus of team leadership is in identifying the overall team effectiveness as it evolves from the decisions of the leader.
One of the current approaches to the study of leadership is the transformational leadership originally conceptualized by the political sociologist James McGregor Burns (1978). In his classic work, Burns offered an important leadership approach that distinguished two key types of leadership: transactional and transformational. An effective model of the transformational approach was advanced by Bass and Avolio (1994) (see Figure 3), which covers the full range of leadership from laissez-faire to the five I’s of transformational leadership; individualized consideration, intellectual stimulation, inspirational motivation, idealized behaviors, and idealized attributes (Antonakis, Avolio, & Sivasubramaniam, 2003).

Figure 3: Full range of leadership model

A model for leadership analysis
While there are undoubtedly many and varied explanations to the study of leadership, perhaps an effective definition is offered by Northouse (2007). Through his analysis of the various threads of leadership, Northouse has identified leadership as “a process whereby an individual influences a group of individuals to achieve a common goal (p. 3).” The importance of this definition is that it identifies leadership as a group process that involves influence in order to achieve goals, while all the time, not viewing the leader as being better than the followers. That being said, the focus of this study is, how do these theories have the potential to play out in online scenarios? Perhaps understanding the various conceptualizations of leadership through the Hegelian perspective of thesis plus antithesis equals synthesis will make the analysis of on-line leadership easier.
One method of defining leadership is to compare the trait perspective to the process perspective. In this method, we can use a mixture of different classic and contemporary theories to identify and define leadership in terms of who the leader is, what they do, or some mixture of the two. From the trait perspective (Stogdill, 1948), we directly assess the leader by the physical features, personality features, ability features, intelligence, self-confidence, determination, integrity, and sociability. As Stogdill points out, one of the commonly cited weaknesses of this perspective is that it fails to consider the situation, the followers, or the outcomes of leadership, all of which are vital pieces to the leadership puzzle. Through the balancing of this theory with the addition of a process perspective (Jago, 1982) we can associate the leader themselves, with the context, time, people, and situation involved in leadership (Northouse, 2007). Within this perspective, we would also consider the group context (part of the situation) and the dynamics that occur within the group through the context of the leadership dynamics.
Another method of analysis of the leadership concept would be to understand the leadership dynamic by comparing assigned versus emergent leadership. Through this method of analysis, the goal is to identify how the leader came into their position. As Northouse (2007) identifies, assigned leaders are those leaders placed into their position within a formal hierarchy because of some type of response from either their subordinate or their superordinate. However, other leaders obtain their position because of some response from the potential followers, these individual emerge as leaders because of some dynamic in the situation/trait method that has allowed the followers to identify them as an appropriate and perhaps necessary leader in the context of that time and space (Hogg, 2001). While the assigned leader is a clear-cut position that can be understood in terms of organizational politics, the emergent leader is much more difficult and must be understood through the use of some theoretical perspective. Some of the common theoretical perspectives of emergent leadership include communicative emergence (Fisher, 1974), gender-biased emergence (Eagly, 1987; Eagly, Baron, Hamilton, & Kelman, 2004; Eagly, Beall, & Sternberg, 2004; Eagly & Carli, 2007), and the social identity theory of leadership emergence (Hogg, 2001). As Fisher (1974) points out, the communication behaviors that lead to emergent leader success include being verbally involved, being informed, seeking others’ opinions, initiating new ideas, and being firm but not rigid.
Because we know that leadership involves influencing others, a third method of analysis is to understand the power and coercion process involved in that influence (Northouse, 2007). Power can involve either position-given power such as legitimate power, reward power and coercive power, or personally-derived power such as referent or expert power (Raven, 1992). As Northouse (2007) indicates, this perspective of understanding power pays attention to how the leader works with the followers in achievement of the common group goals. This allows for an analysis of the leaders use of power in terms of the transformational/transactional continuum (Avolio & Bass, 1988; Bass, 2008) which identifies the leaders actions from management processes through transformational influences. Coercion is a very specific type of power that is often identified in the literature in order to ensure that it is not included in the many studies of leadership. Coercion involves the leaders’ use of some type of force to elicit the change that best suits their personal goals often at the cost of their followers’ needs and aspirations.

Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: